Of all the issues troubling relations between China and the United States, none is as potentially explosive and far-reaching as the issue of Taiwan.
Taiwan has its own democratically elected government and free enterprise-based economy. Its population of 21.5 million is greater than that of Australia or Venezuela, and it is the world's 14th-largest trading nation.
Yet, the government of mainland China (the PRC) views Taiwan as a renegade province, blocking it from joining international organizations and from conducting official diplomatic relations with most nations.
With Hong Kong now under Chinese rule, the PRC has begun to press Taiwan to accept a similar one-country, two-system formula for reunification. But, according to opinion polls, the people of Taiwan prefer independence to reunification by 43 to 34 percent. Last week, the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates Taiwan's independence, swept local elections.
China has made clear that it would use force if Taiwan were to make a formal declaration of its independence. As the American show of force in the Taiwan Strait last year demonstrated, a Chinese attack on Taiwan could quickly escalate into a war between China and the US.
A group of internationally recognized experts on this topic considered the Taiwan/China issue at a recent conference sponsored by the Center for International Law and Policy at New England School of Law. Among conference participants were two former US ambassadors, a former special assistant to President Bush, three former State Department lawyers, a high-level official from Taiwan, an unofficial representative of the PRC, and academicians in the field.
What emerged was a possible framework that could meet the needs and aspirations of both Taiwan and China. It involves neither incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC, nor the challenging step of a declaration of independence as a Republic of Taiwan.
The key to this approach is recognizing that the concepts of sovereignty and independence have changed radically in the last few years as the UN has admitted several new members who don't meet the traditional criteria of independent statehood. Just one example: Liechtenstein and Monaco were admitted, although they had ceded their foreign affairs powers to Switzerland and France, respectively.
As Taiwan has been moving toward de facto "independence," the world has been moving toward a less rigid understanding of the meaning of the word. Building on these developments, a framework for resolving the China/Taiwan issue could encompass the following elements:
* Establishment of a loose power-sharing arrangement (along the lines of a compact of free association), which doesn't erode Taiwan's autonomy but does relieve China's security concerns.
* Continuation of Taiwan's international relations by quasi-official diplomatic means.
* Admission of Taiwan into the UN, the WTO, and other international organizations without a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan.
Putting a new spin on the "if it looks like a duck" analogy, one of the conference participants succinctly summed up the proposal: "The key is for Taiwan to look like a state, act like a state, carry on diplomacy like a state, join international organizations like a state, but not to formally declare its independence, lest it become a target of the PRC's hunting season."
It's unfortunate that during Jiang Zemin's visit, the White House reportedly did not see fit to engage the Chinese leader vigorously on the issue of Taiwan. This was a missed opportunity. A solution based on the above framework would promote democracy, human rights, and international trade on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. More important, it would help ensure that the US is not drawn into a future military conflict.
* Michael P. Scharf is a professor and director of the Center for International Law and Policy at New England School of Law.