TAIPEI, TAIWAN — THE "shooting war" between forces loyal to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong ended 43 years ago with the Nationalists' retreat to Taiwan. But a global diplomatic battle between the rival Chinese regimes, each claiming sole legitimacy to rule the Middle Kingdom, has survived the death of both leaders. Recent developments suggest that Taiwan now may try to change the rules of the game.
South Korea's diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on Aug. 24, accompanied by Seoul's agreement to break relations with Taipei, is a watershed in Taiwan's political isolation. It leaves the island - the world's 14th largest trading economy - without diplomatic allies in Asia and recognized by only 29 nations worldwide, compared to 137 for China.
Reformers within Taiwan's ruling Nationalist (KMT) party, spurred by Seoul's turnabout, have begun to openly question Taipei's one-China policy.
"What does `one China' mean?" asks KMT legislator Huang Chu-wen. "Basically, I think `one China' is ... an historic, cultural, and traditional China, not the China of today." `Try two Chinas'
Many KMT liberals now say Taipei should adopt the so-called "divided-nation model," whereby China would be redefined as a country with two political systems. As in cold-war Germany and present-day Korea, rival Chinese regimes would function internationally as independent states while preserving reunification as a future goal.
"With this concept, we can pursue dual recognition without violating the one-China principle," says Wei Yung, president of the Vanguard Institute for Policy Studies and KMT candidate in legislative elections this December.
More radical calls for recasting Taiwan's diplomatic focus have come from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Since its inception in 1986 the DPP has pushed for grass-roots Formosan nationalism. Last year, the DPP added a "one-China, one-Taiwan" plank to its platform, dropping all claims to territory across the Taiwan Strait and declaring the island an independent state.
Ruling KMT conservatives reject the DPP-style independence and the liberal KMT notion of dual-recognition. They say Beijing would use its international clout to stymie either initiative. Taiwan's isolation, conservatives say, is not the result of a Taiwanese foreign policy failure but rather the product of China's emergence as a powerful nation.
"When China establishes ties with other countries, they all accept that Taiwan is part of China. This is a fact, so how can we change it?" says KMT lawmaker Yok Mu-ming, echoing a position favored by Taiwan's military establishment.
Many in the KMT and the government, however, take a centrist line. Contesting claims that Taiwan is growing more isolated, they argue in favor of ambiguity and pragmatism, two diplomatic tools of Taiwan's first native-born president, Lee Teng-hui.
"Superficially, the government's policy is one-China," says political scientist Ger Yeong-kuang. "But in reality, I think the policy is ... to some degree a two-China policy. But it's very difficult for government officials to say this because ... China is listening."
Recent events illustrate Taipei's flexibility. Taiwan early this year forged consular relations with Latvia, ignoring the Baltic republic's recognition of China. Last month, the island reestablished diplomatic links with the Republic of Niger without requiring the African nation to break ties with Beijing. In both instances Beijing rejected diplomatic coexistence with Taipei and closed its embassy.
In the most recent example of Taipei's economic clout, the United States government on Sept. 2 agreed to sell the island nation 150 F-16 planes, the largest arms sale since Washington broke relations in 1979.
Even so, there is resentment in Taiwan over China's perceived "bullying" of the island in the international arena. Taiwanese are particularly unhappy with efforts by Beijing to pressure Western nations not to sell arms to the island and by moves to keep Taipei out of international organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Blaming Beijing
Businessmen, though richer than ever before, lament the shortcomings of a Taiwan passport and blame their troubles on China. Beijing's recognition of rival regimes on the Korean Peninsula will likely aggravate such frustrations, as it accepts "the divided nation" concept as valid in Korea but not in China.
Many reformers think such frustrations shape Taiwan's ongoing foreign policy debate.
Rapid democratization has given Taiwan's 20 million inhabitants more power at the ballot box and supporters of dual recognition say December's elections could produce a parliament willing to scrap the one-China policy.
Candidates favoring dual recognition will make support for Taiwan's reentry into the United Nations - from which Taiwan was expelled in 1971 - a main plank in their campaign platforms.
Conservative lawmaker Yok, himself up for reelection, says he welcomes the one-China debate: "I hope we bring it out and talk about it. It's the stuff great campaign debates are made of."