China is again rattling its sabers over Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s recent statement that Taiwan will henceforth conduct its relations with China as “a special state-to-state relationship.”

Lee rejects the “one China” principle that has long been the basis of the relationship, and under which China considers itself the central government and Taiwan “a renegade province.”

Lee and the overwhelming majority of the people he represents want “a separate existence” from China. They resent China’s continuing hostile policy of isolating and containing Taiwan internationally and bullying it militarily. They want respect for Taiwan now that the island has become a democracy, a vibrant free-market economy and the 14th-biggest trader in the world.

There is no question that Lee’s statement has caused a big headache for the United States, because the Taiwan Relations Act requires the president and the Congress to take “appropriate action” when Taiwan is threatened — an action that could lead to a deadly war with China.

The root cause of the tension across the Taiwan Strait is the “one China” fiction, a relic of the Cold War. Shocked by the 1949 establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China and by the Korean War, the U.S. refused to recognize the PRC and tried to isolate and contain it for the next 20 years. Washington created a fiction: that the Republic of China on Taiwan is recognized as the legitimate government of China, and that the PRC is not a sovereign state. Taiwan and the PRC went one step further. Each claimed to rule the whole of China, not only the territory it actually controlled but the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. supported Taiwan as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council until 1971 when it could no longer prevent the PRC’s admission. Taiwan could have remained in the U.N. and, most important, could have ended the “one China” fiction and spared the entire world a lot of headaches if it accepted the U.S. proposal of “two Chinas,” but Taiwanese President Chiang Kai-shek vetoed the idea.

The moralistic, unrealistic but convenient “one China” fiction could not, however, spare the U.S. from avoiding the reality of having to deal with mainland China, a country of 1 billion people strategically located on the Asian continent. Anxious to end the Vietnam War and to jointly check the Soviet Union, U.S. President Richard Nixon pursued rapprochement with the PRC, which positively responded as a step to prevent Soviet attack.

The “one China” fiction continued, but with one big change: The latest “one China” fiction (the PRC’s) that there is one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China and, therefore, not a sovereign state. It has replaced the old “one China” fiction that Taiwan is the only legitimate government of China. Japan accepted the new fiction, shifting diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 1972 soon after the Nixon visit to the PRC. One country after another followed. Taiwan’s worst nightmare then came to pass in 1979 when its staunchest supporter and protector, the U.S., switched recognition to Beijing.

Just as the old fiction damaged the PRC, the new fiction has damaged Taiwan. And just as the U.S. and the rest of the world had to face the reality of the PRC, they must now face four facts related to Taiwan:

1. Taiwan has had a separate existence from China for the past several hundred years, especially the last 100 years (50 years under Japanese rule, 50 years under the Kuommtang government — the PRC has never ruled Taiwan).

2. Taiwan has radically transformed into a political democracy with a free-market economy while China has remained a totalitarian Communist dictatorship.

3. Taiwan has satisfied the conditions for recognition as an independent country (a territory larger than 40 percent of the countries of the world; 22 million residents; a government that exercises control; the ability to forge treaties and fulfill all international obligations).

4. Taiwan is growing increasingly discontent with the current “false” international order that has denied its international status and rights.

It is against this background of anomalies caused by the big gap between reality and the “one China” fiction that Lee has made his recent statements. His stand is a response to reality and to the wish of the overwhelming majority of the people (over 70 percent) who yearn to have a place in the sun, to live in freedom and in peace and to have nothing to do with the totalitarian communist Chinese regime. Taiwan abandoned the “one China” fiction in 1991, but the PRC has not and threatens to attack Taiwan if it declares independence.

What can be done? Given current world politics, which are dominated by big powers whose foreign policy is motivated by defending and advancing their national interests and not driven by the idealist principles of freedom, democracy, self-determination, human and religious rights, reaching a solution satisfactory to Taiwan will be very difficult. But three initial steps could be taken that may produce results in the long run:

1. Members of the U.S. Congress should declare their support for the legitimate aspirations of the people of Taiwan for recognition as a sovereign state.

2. China and Taiwan should abandon the “one China” fiction and coexist, building a special relationship — as the U.S. and Britain have done — in view of their common ethnic heritage but radically changed political, social and cultural systems and of the lack of common future aspirations for building one nation.

3. The U.S., Japan and others should appeal to China to abandon its military threat and to peacefully coexist with Taiwan. They should have the courage of justice, morality and law to recognize Taiwan and to defend it in case of Chinese attack — which would be “a Rape of Taiwan” — as NATO recently did for the people of Kosovo. The only sin the Taiwanese have committed is to refuse to “marry” the Chinese.

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