No Regrets Over Taiwan

It's time for China, Taiwan, and the United States to cool any threats before rhetoric becomes reality.

Last week, China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji threatened Taiwan's voters not to elect a president who might declare the island to be independent from the mainland (it already is, for all practical purposes).

Like a Mafia godfather, Mr. Zhu warned that Taiwan "won't get another opportunity to regret."

But this back-handed, bully rhetoric - like the missiles that China shot near Taiwan before an election in 1966 - was all for naught.

On Saturday, Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian, a Mandela-like former dissident who, in the past, had stood for formal independence.

Mr. Chen was once jailed by Taiwan's long-time ruling party for such views. In the election, though, he beat two other candidates who largely towed the traditional line that Taiwan might someday reunite with the mainland. But to win victory in Taiwan's 13-year-old democracy, Mr. Chen had to end his old call for independence.

Still, when he takes power in May, Chen may have difficulty persuading the die-hard separatists within his Democratic Progressive Party not to pursue its independence goals. Or he may even revert to his old views.

To possibly appease Beijing's wounded pride over his victory, Chen has offered to meet Chinese leaders anywhere for talks on "reconciliation" (but not reunification).

He may need to do more, especially since China recently threatened to take the island by force if Taiwan doesn't commit itself to a timetable for reunification. The Communist leaders in Beijing are eager to absorb Taiwan back into the motherland following the return of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau last December.

The US needs to dance carefully between China and Taiwan in the weeks ahead. Congress is not helping.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill by a 341-to-70 margin that would increase military support for Taiwan by selling it advanced defensive weapons such as F-16s. The Senate may pass it too, although President Clinton is unlikely to sign it. Such moves, especially now, only provoke China to take a harder line in negotiations, and offering it other incentives would work better to avoid military threats.

It's unfortunate that the tensions with China overshadow the historic nature of Chen's victory.

His election overthrew one of Asia's long-time ruling parties, the Nationalist Party, or KMT. That party, once led by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan after losing mainland China to Mao Tse-tung's communists in 1949.

And the prospect of a peaceful transition of power from the KMT to Chen's party shows the success of Taiwan's grand experiment in creating a type of democracy that works among ethnic Chinese. To its credit, the KMT allowed the democracy to develop that led to its fall.

The election means there's hope for China, which must someday embrace a Taiwanese-style democracy if it ever wants peaceful reunification.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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