WHEN I was last in Taiwan, I asked to go through a manufacturing company in the capital city of Taipei. We drove out to a factory with long assembly lines manufacturing computer components for IBM and dozens of other consumer products. As the CEO of the company began to outline his company's reach, he mentioned satellite plants the company had built in Japan, Singapore, England, California, and elsewhere around the world.
It became clear that what we were visiting was the Taiwan headquarters of a huge corporation with multinational manufacturing capacity and markets spanning the globe.
This is not particularly unique in Taiwan, whose economic growth continues to be amazing. Today its foreign exchange reserves are either first or second largest in the world. It is the world's 14th-largest trading nation. Its exports are worth $76 billion a year. Unemployment is negligible among its 20 million people, and they have a literacy rate of 93 percent. One in three of its people owns a television set (versus one in 100 in mainland China).
Taiwan has transformed itself in a few brief years from dictatorship to democracy. Its current president, Lee Teng-hui, is the first native-born Taiwanese to hold that office, as distinct from the aging Chinese politicians who have run Taiwan since they fled there from the Communist takeover of the mainland. It is clearly an economic force to be reckoned with, and a land making impressive reforms. But its standing in international councils is overshadowed by the austere image of mainland China, which loses no opportunity to assert that it, and not Taiwan, is the rightful occupant of the seat marked ``China.''
Taiwan has by clever maneuvering managed to send its athletes to the Olympic games. It has gained representation in the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization. But since 1971, Taiwan has watched the People's Republic of China occupy the Chinese seat at the United Nations. Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China, has been an international political orphan.
Now Taiwan has launched a bid for re-admission to the UN, without necessarily ousting mainland China. Taiwan points to East and West Germany, which were simultaneously members of the UN, and the two Koreas. It is a moving, but for the moment hopeless, campaign.
The reason for its hopelessness is Beijing's virulent opposition to seating Taiwan, as well as the reluctance of major nations, including the United States, to agitate the mainland Chinese regime.
Ironically, both mainland China and Taiwan maintain that there is only one China; each claims to be the legitimate ruler of both mainland China and Taiwan. Each maintains that there will one day be unification, but under its system of government. Taiwan argues that dual membership in the UN would actually hasten unification. Beijing dismisses the example of the Germanys and the Koreas, arguing that they were created by international accident, whereas the People's Republic of China is conceded by most of the world's nations to be the legitimate holder of the China chair.
Thus the 20 million people of Taiwan, are likely for now to continue unrepresented at the UN. Privately, many of the world's diplomats express sympathy for Taiwan's efforts to establish its international identity. But political realism - and the fear of invoking Beijing's wrath - make their governments unwilling to support Taiwan's campaign for UN membership. In the longer range, perhaps Beijing itself can be persuaded, as one veteran American China watcher says, to ``accept the validity of Taiwan's need to operate in international councils.''