RELATIONS between China and Taiwan have entered a new and critical phase. Taiwan's president Lee Tenghui has signaled his willingness to talk with the Beijing government on an equal basis, provided they meet conditions including democratization and renouncing the use of force against Taiwan. Although the conditions have been rejected by Beijing, the announcement reflected a break with Taiwan's policy of ``no direct contact, no negotiation, and no compromise'' with China.
This new flexibility is met, however, with increased belligerency from the Chinese leaders. They have denounced the offer of government-to-government talks as a ploy to make them accept either a two-China policy or an independent Taiwan. Instead they insist on talks between Taiwan's Nationalist and China's Communist parties.
Yang Shangkun, China's head of state who was involved in last year's military crackdown on the student demonstrators in China, reiterated recently that China opposes ``an independent Taiwan in any form,'' and that ``if Taiwan goes for independence, the military solution cannot be precluded.'' He warned that China has atomic bombs, guided missiles and ``many submarines'' for such a purpose.
China's military threat against Taiwan should not be taken lightly. As events around Tiananmen Square demonstrated, a government that bases its power on the ``barrel of a gun'' will not hesitate to use the gun to attain its objectives. Any possible use of force makes Taiwan's stability and prosperity extremely precarious.
But forced reunification can be avoided if the United States, along with the other industrial democracies, insists that reunification only take place on a peaceful and voluntary basis, and with the consent of the Taiwanese people rather than through a secret deal with Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party.
To implement this principle, the industrial democracies and the World Bank should make it clear as soon as possible (not belatedly after a tragedy, as with the Tiananmen Square massacre) that all loans and technical aid are contingent upon China's refraining from the use of force against Taiwan. Also, the Western powers can bolster Taiwan's security by selling it more defensive weapons. Taiwan has made some weapons of its own in the wake of Western appeasement of China, but these are inferior in quality. The Taiwanese-made jet fighters in particular are no match for the latest Chinese MIG fighters.
A recent editorial in a major Taiwan newspaper warns how the island can be wrecked by China even without an invasion or loss of life. Just two missiles fired from China at two mountain peaks can shatter Taiwan's calm and severely damage its prosperity as people and businesses flee the island. Such is the vulnerability of Taiwan.
Less dramatic but potentially more serious, Taiwan is already being destabilized by fleets of ``private fishing boats'' from China that congregate frequently outside Taiwan's coastal waters to smuggle firearms, drugs, other illegal goods, and possible saboteurs into Taiwan.
While China can easily shatter Taiwan, it has little to entice Taiwan into reunification besides its market for trade and its cheap labor. Yet the benefits of free trade and investment are best obtained in a cooperative common-market arrangement without political reunification.
With their relative freedom and a per capita income more than 20 times that of the mainland, the Taiwanese have too much to lose politically and economically. Given China's oppressive political system and its impoverished economy, any reunification that goes beyond a common-market approach is against Taiwan's interests.
China counters with its promise of ``one country-two systems,'' but this is a meaningless idea, especially considering China's history of political purges and policy reversals. One only has to look at developments in Hong Kong - the foreboding and the rising tide of emigration because of its impending return to China in 1997 - to appreciate what will happen on a larger scale to Taiwan if forced reunification occurs.
Unfortunately, the military disparity between China and Taiwan and Western timidity toward Beijing encourage China to intimidate its neighbor. Although China would object to new weapon sales, this is a worthwhile step for safeguarding the security and freedom of 20 million Taiwanese. China's rulers massacred their own citizens in 1989 in order to suppress the pro-democracy movement. They can just as ruthlessly deprive the Taiwanese of their freedom of choice unless the international community acts to prevent this from happening.