Reagan's Chinese checkers

It may seem unsporting to prolong Ronald Reagan's discomfiture over the China flap. He is not the first presidential candidate to trip over his feet in the often-arcane world of diplomacy. But inasmuch as he has issued what is termed a "definitive" statement on China and Taiwan, the American public should be aware that it still leaves the question muddied. Mr. Reagan has climbed down from a "two-China" formula but he invites diplomatic as well as political but he invites diplomatic as well as political trouble when he insists the United States is hypocritical in characterizing its relations with Taiwan as not "official."

What Mr. Reagan has failed to understand is the importance of form. He has overlooked that normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China -- which he now recognizes as vital -- was based precisely and explictly on a US commitment notm to have "official" relations with Taiwan. The joint communique in December 1978 establishing diplomatic relations stated that the US "will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan." In a subsequent unilateral statement Washington further said that in future the American people and the Taiwanese would maintain relations "without official government representation and without diplomatic relations." These US commitments were made within the context of the Sino-US agreement carefully worked out by the Nixon administration in which the US acknowledged the Chinese contention that there is only China.

By tampering with this language, so crucial to Peking, Mr. Reagan seems to be repudiating the commitments arrived at after so many years of negotiation. That is why China is now so upset. Taiwan is regarded as a part of China and any move by the US elevating its status to that of an official government would undermine the whole basis of diplomatic ties with Peking. Many Americans may share Mr. Reagan's criticism of the abrupt and inept way in which the US broke relations with Taiwan. But they must look at present-day realities.

And the realities are such that one wonders why Mr. Reagan deemed it so necessary to agitate the issue. The happy fact is, Taiwan is prospering. Once the US opened its "unofficial" mission in Taipei, other nations began upgrading their own representations or opening new ones. Foreign businessmen and bankers began surging in. American investment and trade are at their highest level ever. US sales of defensive arms continue. A new civil air agreement has been signed (despite Mr. Reagan's concern that US and Taiwanese officials cannot meet in each other's offices).

Most significantly, China has moderated its own policies toward Taiwan. It no longer speaks about "liberating" Taiwan by force of arms. It has redeployed its forces out of the area and cut back its military exercises. It stresses that after "reunification" Taiwan could keep its armed forces, its capitalist system, its trade and investment connections. Slowly, too, trade ties between Taiwan and China are burgeoning.

This is not to ignore potential diplomatic problems ahead, but developments so far confirm the soundness of a China policy pursued by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Mr. Reagan may be forgiven his inexperience and any inadvertent mistake. But he will need to be a fast learner. He himself tends to be straightforward and explicit, and this perhaps makes it hard to deal with subtleties and nuances of language. Yet diplomacy is built as much on the implicit and the symbolic as on the literal. It is an art Mr. Reagan will have to show he understands if he expects Americans to put him at the helm of the nation's affairs.

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