TAIWAN on its National Day, next Saturday, has good reasons to be proud. Economically it is doing fine. More striking, it is becoming democratic. This political change, however, can lead to a major crisis in East Asia if it is not managed with great care in the coming years. Although Taiwan's economic system has been capitalistic, its political system has been authoritarian. Its political system, as that of the mainland, has superimposed one-party rule on top of a Confucian authoritarian culture and a deeply rooted fear of disorder.
Suddenly last year, Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwan's aging top leader, called for democratic reform. An opposition party was permitted, and martial law lifted. While the reforms still have limits, they already have gone further than expected. Democratization in Taiwan is good news for Taiwan and for other places seeking examples of peaceful democratic change.
There is, however, one risk. Peace and stability in East Asia have been maintained for almost four decades by acknowledging in a formal sense that Taiwan is a province (or region) of China. The Chinese Nationalist Party has ruled Taiwan on this basis, retaining a Constitution that provided for rule of all China, of which Taiwan is one province. The communists could tolerate Taiwan's autonomy, knowing that the Nationalist Party could never allow discussion of formal independence for Taiwan. Impatient logicians and some indigenous Taiwanese were disturbed by this arrangement, but it has provided a framework for coexistence between practical Chinese on both sides of the Strait of Taiwan.
Democracy in Taiwan threatens to unglue this arrangement. The younger generations in Taiwan have far fewer personal and family connections with the mainland than the old Nationalist Party leadership had. They are not particularly hostile to the mainland. They are curious about it, and businessmen are eager to open up new markets there. But it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that a more democratic Taiwan would want to turn over political sovereignty to Peking. ``Taiwan independence'' is still a banned phrase, but people are talking about ``self-determination.''
This is an explosive situation. Any Chinese politician who loses Taiwan will fall from power. Peking desperately hopes it can solve its Taiwan question without military force, but some hotheads in China might propose force to prevent Taiwan from becoming an independent country.
Careful management is needed to avert a crisis. Increased informal communication and travel, just recently allowed by Taiwan's rulers, can help ensure that both sides base policy on accurate perceptions of the other. A stable, democratic evolution in Hong Kong would help immeasurably. If democracy in Taiwan is successful and if reform continues on the mainland, perhaps the Nationalist Party could separate its own fate from that of its Taiwan home of the past four decades. Maybe it can move back to the mainland. This could create more options for both the Nationalist Party and the people of Taiwan.
The United States can rejoice with the spread of democracy in Taiwan, but caution is warranted. In the 1980 election, candidate Ronald Reagan suggested formal US-Taiwan relations, and this complicated relations with China for several years. We can hope that candidates this year will do better when faced with questions about Taiwan independence and arms sales. The Taiwan issue is still deeply challenging, and any attempt to force a resolution could result in tragedy. There is every reason to pass this issue on to future generations who will have different values and circumstances. They have a much better chance to solve this problem peacefully than we do.
Ben Stavis is a visiting scholar at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Iowa.