Since the signing of the ''Shanghai communique'' and especially since normalization of US-China relations in 1979, Peking has launched a series of peace offensives aimed at Taiwan's reunification with the mainland. It has publicized with great fanfare its unification proposal. It has also pressed the US to phase out arms sales to Taiwan, thereby putting pressure on Taiwan to negotiate.
Despite Peking's strangely conciliatory offer, the response of the Chinese Nationalists has been a resounding ''no.'' Doesn't the Kuomintang (KMT) leadership also say it wants to see China reunified? Then why has it repeatedly spurned Peking's offer?
The reasons are many and complex. Inas-much as the KMT government still claims to be the sole legitimate government of China, of which Taiwan is only a province, and thereby justifies its authoritarian rule over the native Taiwanese , who comprise 85 percent of the population on the island, it cannot afford to negotiate with the ''Communist bandits.'' To accept Peking's proposal for negotiation, not to mention its terms of reunification (which would reduce the KMT government in Taipei to the status of a local government), would, by the KMT's own standards, be tantamount to affirming legitimacy of the Peking regime as China's rightful government and at the same time destroy its own main claim to power in Taiwan. Moreover, the KMT does not want to alarm the public or risk a popular uprising if any display of interest in negotiations with Peking is misconstrued as a prelude to ''sellout.'' Hence, the KMT authorities have time and again pledged ''no negotiation, no compromise, no contacts'' with the Communists.
As a matter of fact, few Taiwanese welcome talks with Peking or want reunification with the mainland, so they tend to applaud the firm stance taken by the KMT leadership.
Judging from my conversations in Taiwan, reunification with the mainland is not an aspiration cherished by many. By Asia's standard, most people are doing well economically and they naturally detest communism. They view the three decades of Communist rule on the mainland, marked by excesses, brutal repression , purges, and large-scale turmoil, with disgust and hostility. Thus they listen to Peking's offers with open derision. Most of the children of mainlanders are also indifferent, as they are quite accustomed to life in Taiwan and share much less of their parents' sentimental links with the mainland.
This is not to say everyone in Taiwan is satisfied. But even those who are discontented with KMT rule - and they are numerous - probably feel that if Taiwan and the mainland are reunified they will have little to gain and much to lose.
Hence it is not surprising that Peking's reunification drive has hit a stone wall. Moreover, Peking's campaign approach and its unrealistic proposal have not helped. For instance, it is impossible to tell whether Peking is interested more in scoring propaganda points or in serious negotiation. If the latter, why make a public ballyhoo instead of using more discreet channels in Hong Kong or Tokyo?
Perhaps Deng Xiaoping and his associates do not fully understand what is going on in Taiwan. Important as reunification is, Peking tends to treat it as an issue to be resolved solely by the leaders of the Chinese mainland and the island. Unlike the Communists, the KMT authorities do have to contend with the views and interests of the people. Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang's invitation to President Chiang and a few KMT leaders to visit their ancestral homes on the mainland is repugnant to many in Taiwan. If peaceful reunification is to succeed, it will require Peking to do a lot more to win the support of people on Taiwan than to appeal to a few KMT leaders' sense of filial piety.
So far, Peking has scored poorly against this test. It has yet to convince the people of Taiwan of the sincerity and feasibility of its reunification proposal. For example, the offer to let Taiwan keep its autonomy and its socio-economic system and armed forces as a guarantee of such autonomy is a positive step; however, Peking's objection to Taiwan's purchase of arms from the US makes a mockery of the offer. Unless the people of Taiwan can feel secure, they will never respond to Peking's peace overtures.
The proposal to share power and exercise joint leadership of China also sounds curious. For one thing, neither the KMT nor the Communists have the virtue of tolerating dissent, so how could they share power?
Is there a way out of the impasse? What can Peking do? First of all, any use of force, which Communist officials have occasionally hinted at, would be a terrible mistake. It would shatter China's image as a responsible member of the international community and severely damage relations with the US and other states.
There is, however, another alternative - it would require patience but would be more productive. Namely, cultivating the conditions for peaceful reunification which do not exist today. One such condition is that China modernize its economy and substantially raise the standard of living on the mainland. Another is that it institute a rule of law, practice democracy, and show a greater respect for people's freedoms and human rights. If the Communists cannot do better than the Nationalists, they should at least not fare worse.
Thirdly, Peking must convince the people of Taiwan that they have something to gain and that their security, freedoms, careers, and living standards would not suffer. Above all, a sense of mutual trust and goodwill has to be fostered after more than three decades of mutual recrimination and suspicion.
In short, if the political, economic, social, and cultural gaps between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan continue to narrow, the conditions for peaceful unification can gradually mature.