ON March 23, Taiwan's voters will go to the polls and, in a historic Chinese first, will democratically elect their leader. Presuming that current President Lee Teng-hui is re-elected, he will have an opportunity to move Taiwan's relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) dramatically - in either direction. Which direction will depend, in large part, on what President Lee does with his mandate.
A newly elected Lee could opt for more of the same: a continuation of Taiwan's slow, steady drive for increased international respect and recognition without explicitly abandoning the "one China" principle. Should he take such an approach, there is the possibility of some rapprochement with the PRC, but a major breakthrough is unlikely. More likely will be a continuation of the ongoing battle of wits and nerve.
Lee's second option would be to extend an olive branch to Beijing in his victory speech, offering to go to Beijing or to meet PRC President Jiang Zemin on neutral ground (Hong Kong, Singapore, or even China's Hainan Island). The greater Lee's electoral mandate, the more flexibility he would have to make such a dramatic gesture.
For this to work, Beijing would also have to demonstrate a little flexibility and restraint. This may not be as unlikely as current Chinese behavior would lead one to believe. President Jiang appears eager to find a long term "solution" to the Taiwan problem - that is, he would like to put this matter back on the shelf so he can get about his more-important tasks of consolidating his own power and ensuring China's continued economic prosperity.
China's leaders have made it clear that there is no timetable for reunification. They also accept the democratic process on Taiwan, as long as it does not lead to a declaration of independence that threatens the PRC's sovereignty and national pride. A genuine overture by Lee toward Beijing, one that keeps the fig leaf of "one country, two systems" intact, creates a win-win situation for Taiwan and the mainland; one which Jiang may find too tempting to turn down.
LEE has yet another option: He could follow the path most feared by Beijing; namely, a drive toward Taiwan "independence" (either stated or strongly implied). While Lee is wise enough not to make such an outright declaration, he could take steps that would leave his intentions unambiguous, at least in the minds of Beijing's leaders.
One such step would be to aggressively seek an official state visit to Washington. This would be seen by Beijing as Taiwan's "crossing the line," beyond which some type of military response is inevitable. To his credit, Lee understands this and has stated that he would not seek such a visit.
Enter the United States Congress. There has been considerable talk on Capitol Hill about extending Lee an invitation whether he seeks one or not. This comes from avid Taiwan supporters and from even-more-avid PRC detractors. In addition, lobby groups favoring Taiwan's independence would welcome the opportunity to both embarrass Lee and further strain Sino-American relations. Add to this partisan politics in a US election year and you have a potentially explosive combination.
Make no mistake, the stakes are extremely high. Were Congress to extend Lee an invitation to address a joint session, that alone would probably be enough to convince Beijing that the US was on a clear course of containing China as it did the Soviet Union. Those wishing to see China as the next enemy would have brought about a self-fulfilling prophesy.
President Clinton would then be faced with a lose-lose situation: 1) Refuse Lee a visa and be seen as turning his back on a democratically elected friend while "coddling Chinese dictators" (his own words once again coming back to haunt him); or, 2) approve the visit and go down in history as the American leader who ushered in the next cold war.
IRONICALLY, Beijing's current aggressive behavior toward Taiwan - aimed at discouraging Lee from choosing this third option - is providing both the Taiwan independence movement and Beijing's detractors in Congress with more incentive to take a strong stand against the PRC. It also undercuts the efforts of individuals like Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, who are calling for a more-reasoned, less-confrontational approach toward Beijing.
If Beijing is serious about finding a peaceful solution under its own prescribed "one country, two systems" formula, it must demonstrate its willingness to deal constructively with the democratically elected leader of the other system. At the same time, Lee must send clear, unambiguous signals that he will use his mandate to make a dramatic move for peace in the manner of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Meanwhile, we can only hope that Congress will not undermine Lee's efforts, and America's long-term national security interests, by trying to use the Taiwan elections to drive the US further and faster along a collision course with the PRC - and that the PRC will realize that its current saber-rattling is making the option it most fears more likely, rather than less.