Back in the 1980s, when I was doing a stint in government, my boss, US Secretary of State George Shultz, sat down at a small private dinner in Hong Kong with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
At some appropriate pause in the evening, Mrs. Thatcher dropped her bombshell. She had been in negotiations with officials on the Chinese mainland to transfer the British colony of Hong Kong to Beijing's communist regime.
I sat stunned in my chair. I could not believe that Thatcher, whose strength I greatly admired, had succumbed. Earlier I had spent six years based in Hong Kong as a foreign correspondent. It flourished as a glittering bastion of free enterprise. It was an inspiring contrast to the drab dictatorship of communist China. Were its people now to be returned to a communist government from which many of them had fled?
Though the heart ached then, over time my head has come to accept the inevitability of events. A good chunk of the Kowloon Peninsula and additional land on the mainland was actually under a lease to the British, due to expire in 1997. Without it, Hong Kong island was not a viable entity. British resistance to the Chinese by force was unthinkable. "They could," as one British military officer told me, "take it any time they want with a phone call."
As it has happened, over the years China, although still repressive, has become less communist. It has permitted Hong Kong to retain much of its free enterprise character.
The lesson in all this is that governments make decisions both idealistic (Britain going to war over the Falklands) and realistic (Britain ceding Hong Kong to China).
So I was not as outraged as some of President Bush's more conservative supporters when he recently took the pragmatic course and warned Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian to quit the Taiwan independence talk. On the face of it, that seems like a contradiction of everything Mr. Bush feels about democracy and freedom. A haven for many Chinese refugees from communism, Taiwan, like Hong Kong, is a stunning economic success and enjoys freedoms that set it distinctly apart from communist China.
There are strong US emotional ties to Taiwan. Many Americans, and their representatives in Congress, admire and support its people. But pragmatism requires the Bush administration to engage, and seek a stable relationship with, a mainland China that is undergoing change and is an increasingly forceful player in Asia. China, for instance, is playing a critical role in negotiations to curb North Korea's nuclear-weapons development, a key objective in the US campaign against terrorism.
Thus the US must maintain a delicate juggling act between China, with which it has strong economic and political interests, and Taiwan, to which it is more ideologically and emotionally attuned.
It has done this through a smoke-and-mirrors policy designed to preserve the "status quo" between the two. Status quo means that the US formally recognizes China but maintains a healthy informal relationship with Taiwan. For its part, China claims Taiwan is actually part of China. Taiwan, though it has little hope of recapturing the mainland, would argue philosophically that its authority should prevail there. Both sides of the Taiwan Strait bristle with weaponry of the respective protagonists, but trade and other contacts between the two have been growing, and war has been avoided.
What rattles the status quo arrangement is any move on the part of Taiwan to go beyond its present freedoms and declare independence. That starts the war drums banging in Beijing and raises the specter of an explosion in Asia which the US does not need or want.
It is just this issue of independence that Taiwan's President Chen has surfaced. He did so in an election campaign pledge to hold a referendum demanding that China pull back its missiles aimed at Taiwan and commit to a peaceful resolution of the cross-straits issue. Concerned about rising tensions, President Bush in strong words deplored the Chen initiative as one that threatened to upset the delicate status quo.
But while pragmatism dictates that the US work toward a better relationship with emerging China, no administration in Washington, either Republican or Democratic, could afford to forsake Taiwan. Public opinion would surely require US intervention in defense of Taiwan should China threaten force against it.
As China evolves over the years, who knows how the China-Taiwan issue will play out. In the meantime, Bush must maintain his delicate juggling act.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.