Hush, Hush Taiwan?

Much gnashing of teeth and cluck-clucking has been heard in the two months since Taiwan's leader, Lee Teng-hui, said his country would deal with China on a "state to state" basis.

To Beijing, them's fightin' words. The Communists who won China's civil war in 1949 failed to win Taiwan. Up to now they haven't been ready to take the island by assault.

They prefer everyone accept the fiction that Taiwan, with its thriving democracy, is not a de facto independent state - even though it is one and even though, among other reality-checks, Beijing's foreign ministry deals with Taiwan.

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The United States has long since bought into that face-saving fiction - some call it ambiguity - thus agreeing with China to set aside the issue of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland for the sake of greater goals, such as trade and a stable Asia. President Clinton, especially, has warmed up to China so much that Taiwan fears it's been forsaken.

That coolness to a former ally likely provoked Lee to test US resolve last July 9. But his provocation led China-watchers to warn that the more nationalist of leaders in Beijing might try to punish, if not attack, Taiwan - to keep it from stating the obvious.

After all, they say, China did launch "test" missiles near Taiwan in 1996 to warn voters there not to pick independence-declaring candidates in an election. Beijing's scare tactic was met by two aircraft carriers sent rushing to the area by the US.

That sweaty-palm showdown, and now Lee's truth-telling, has forced America to look inward at another ambiguity - the question of whether it would automatically defend Taiwan in the same way it must, by treaty, defend South Korea, Japan, and NATO allies. The consensus in Congress, at least, is that the US should. But nothing's binding.

So now, after two months of much hand-wringing and punditry, we will have a friendly summit this weekend between the American and Chinese presidents.

And despite recent testiness, they will paper over their differences. Why? China's unpopular leaders will hopefully once again realize their priority is not to rattle a sword at Taiwan but maintain stability for the sake of raising a billion people out of poverty with market reforms and entry into the world trading system.

And that little fiction about Taiwan's nonstate status will be put back onto the nonfiction bestseller list. Meanwhile, Beijing will wait until Lee leaves office next year, expecting his successor to be more kowtowing.

And America will continue to bow to the assumed wisdom that China is a sleeping giant rather than a paper tiger whose wrath is to be avoided and who must be nudged toward Taiwan-style democracy and capitalism.

All the fuss over Lee will be for naught while all the fizz will be over keeping US-China relations bubbling along.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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