The warm feelings and positive comment generated by President Clinton's China trip were eclipsed momentarily this week when the American leader responded to a Chinese professor's question about Taiwan. The president simply repeated longstanding US policy: one China, and no independent Taiwan.
This formula is, of course, anything but simple in its implications. More, perhaps, than any other issue, Taiwan's future underscores the complexities of US-Chinese relations.
China views Taiwan as a renegade province that must be rejoined with the motherland. Taiwan itself has evolved a vibrant free-market economy and political democracy that give it an identity quite distinct from the still-communist mainland.
US-Taiwan ties, though altered by the shift to a one-China policy, remain strong. Washington is not about to forsake Taiwan's freedom-loving people. The president's open statement of an understood policy aside, Taiwan has powerful supporters in the American government. Military aid for the island will continue.
But a strengthening relationship with China hinges on adherence to the no-independent-Taiwan formulation. Is there any way out of the contradictions inherent in this policy?
The answer lies more with Beijing than Washington. China's political evolution has a long way to go. At some point, the country's leaders should realize that military conquest and oppression are no longer options. Allowing people freedom to develop culturally, intellectually, and economically is the greatest assurance of stability.
Hong Kong is the immediate test case. Will the former British colony's democratic leanings be honored? A year after the handover to China, Hong Kong's pluralist politics appear alive and kicking.
Tibet, another sensitive issue, could become a second test case. China's Jiang Zemin should meet with the Dalai Lama to explore the latter's openness to an autonomy arrangement. It's a win-win prospect, offering Tibetans the measure of freedom they deserve and China the opportunity to show it is moving beyond habits of brutal repression.
If China passes such tests, the time could come when Taiwan might consider reunification with a democratizing mainland. Until then, no one, least of all the United States, should force the issue.