The Monitor's View

China bends on Taiwan, why not Tibet?

If Beijing can talk with Taiwan about ties, it can talk with the Dalai Lama about Tibet's future.

By refusing to talk to Tibet's Dalai Lama, China has set itself up for yet another protest of the Olympic torch run, this time in India. But in contrast, China's top leader held talks last Saturday with Taiwan's incoming vice president. Does that receptivity to negotiations give hope to Tibetans?

That depends on whether Beijing follows up on its breakthrough talks and apparent new goodwill with Taiwan, a "breakaway" island it regards as an official region of China as much as landlocked Tibet is in reality.

The Dalai Lama seeks only full autonomy for his people within Chinese rule while the newly elected leaders of Taiwan are happy with the island's ambiguous status as de facto independent but still officially part of "one China" (someday). Taiwan's president-elect, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, plans closer economic ties with the mainland and, unlike outgoing President Chen Shui-bian, won't agitate Beijing with moves toward official independence.

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The surprise high-level talks between Taiwan and China may be Beijing's way to reward Taiwan's voters for bringing back Nationalist rule and the old policy which leaves "the question" of the island's status to future generations. (Note the irony of a dictatorship rewarding a democracy.) Now, China should be equally generous with the Dalai Lama, who has dropped his demand for Tibetan independence – unlike many younger Tibetans – and reward him by opening talks. Many countries seek such a move, and a few leaders may boycott the opening of the Beijing Olympics if such talks don't take place.

But China's leaders don't need foreign pressure to see the wisdom of such a step. The native Buddhists of Tibet, after all, are far different from China's dominant ethnic Han people in culture, religion, and ethnicity than are the 23 million people of Taiwan. In fact, the eruption of Han nationalism against Tibetans after the recent protests shows just how difficult it would be to integrate Tibet into China. And Beijing's arguments for any historic control of this Himalayan area remain weak.

China's slight openness with Taiwan could merely be pre-Olympic posturing to save face after its Tibetan debacle. In his meeting with Taiwan's vice president-elect, Vincent Siew, who takes office May 22, Chinese President Hu Jintao didn't promise more such talks, although he did point to granting tourist visas and direct flights across the strait.

Much more needs to be done by Beijing to show a new attitude. Mr. Siew was not allowed into China for the talks as an elected representative but only with a "Taiwanese compatriot travel document." Such slaps in the face must end, and China can start by allowing Taiwan to attend the May 19 World Health Assembly and join the World Health Organization. It can also let Taiwan send a high official to this year's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting.

As Siew told Mr. Hu, the two sides should "face reality, envision the future, put aside differences, and pursue a win-win situation." And if China has peaceful intent for eventual reunification with the island, it can also remove the hundreds of missiles aimed at Taiwan.

It is in China's self-interest in stability to treat both Tibet and Taiwan similarly.

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