THE coming visit of President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan to the United States is a rare acknowledgement that his island country, home to 21 million people who democratically elected him, has an identity distinct from the Chinese mainland.
That identity has been long in taking shape. For most of the 46 years since the Nationalist Chinese, under Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the island and set up a government in exile, Taiwan was preoccupied with its challenge to the Communist rulers in Beijing. That has eased with the economic and political opening of Taiwan in recent years. A substantial part of the island's population would prefer independence over eventual reunification with the mainland.
That inclination remains heresy in Beijing, however, where officials view Taiwan as a breakaway province and consider any recognition of its autonomy an attack on Chinese sovereignty. Hence their outbursts at President Clinton's decision to allow Mr. Lee to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University. Prior to this, the Taiwanese president was allowed only to change planes in the US, not disembark, in accord with the ''one China'' policy Washington has adhered to since establishment of normal relations with the People's Republic in 1979.
What will Beijing concoct as suitable retaliation for this US slight? In 1992, after President Bush approved the sale of F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, the Chinese showed their pique by shipping missiles off to Pakistan. They may do something similar now.
A sounder option would be to recognize that Clinton has not shifted policies, though he has bowed a bit -- at Congress's strong urging -- to the reality of today's Taiwan, which is, after all, the fifth-largest US trading partner and an increasingly vital democracy. The one-China framework, meanwhile, remains formally intact, and isn't likely to crumble anytime soon, given the importance of relations with China.
Regarding Taiwan's future, Washington should use its ties to both Beijing and Taipei to encourage the ongoing dialogue across the Formosa Strait, allowing the Chinese on both sides of that political divide to work out their differences over time.
To succeed, that dialogue has to embrace the fact that Taiwan has become a good deal more than an erstwhile province of China.