Who is that plucking at the sleeve of the world's attention while all eyes are on the leaders of China and the United States meeting in Tokyo? It is Taiwan, doing very well, thank you, in spite of being cold-shouldered out of the United Nations years ago and then out of official diplomatic relations with its long-time military ally, the United States.
There are at least two senses in which the clock cannot be turned back.
For one thing, with UN and US recognition of Peking, Taiwan cannot return to the international status it had; it cannot return to the official ties with the US advocated by Ronald Reagan; nor can the US move away from its normalization of relations with China.
For another, with an internal trend toward democratic development established , Taiwan cannot reverse it or prolong interruptions like the recent crackdown on opposition.
There may be a third sense in which the clock cannot be turned back, and this involves Taiwan's increasing unofficial relationships with the mainland Chinese. Individual contacts have become ordinary in third places. Indirect trade through Hong Kong has been estimated as high as $80 million last year, not much in absolute terms but symbolically significant. Things have obviously progressed beyond the recent story of black-marketing fishermen: The Taiwanese traded cheap watches with Rolex and Omega faces to the Chinese in exchange for gold bars -- which turned out to be lead covered with gilt.
The lesson seems to be that no clocks have to be turned back for Taiwan to flourish. As US Sen. John Glenn reported last week, the Taiwan Relations Act has worked "remarkably well" in its first year. US-Taiwan trade rose by 23 percent in 1979 and is expected to grow by at least 20 percent a year, with US coal, for example, increasing to a Taiwan cutting its reliance on oil. Tension in the Taiwan Strait area is said to have declined as US relations with the People's Republic of China have improved. Even without the old mutual defense treaty, the US is weathering Peking's objections and following through with defensive arms sales to Taiwan.
Taiwan also is expanding trade with the rest of the world, including, despite its staunch anticommunism, some Eastern bloc countries. At the same time it is achieving a distribution of income more equitable than in many lands. The per capita income of the top 20 percent is 4.8 times that of the bottom 20 percent, less of a difference than in the US itself. No wonder wall posters in China proclaim, "Learn from Taiwan in economy."
Even in the matter of human rights, which have had their setbacks in Taiwan in recent months, there may be some improvement on the horizon. Elections had been postponed around the time of the break with the US. Now they have been promised by the end of this year, and they could be the most significant in Taiwan's history. One reason is that the number of places open for election in the national legislative body has been increased from 10 percent to 17 percent. Since many of the remaining 83 percent are aging, it is believed the newly elected legislators may have increasing influence as the years go on.
Also the one officially recognized party, the Kuomintang, now has nominating procedures permitting moderate or even liberal members to stand against party candidates. Though the opposition has been diminished by the recent dissident trials, it contains moderate elements that may come to the fore, too.
No one knows whether moderates will be elected, of course, or whether the elections will actually be as free and open as promised. Taiwan is on its mettle to go forward in the political realm as splendidly as it has in the economic.