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WASHINGTON — The changing of the political guard will soon be under way in Washington. Despite disquiet in many foreign capitals, few dramatic changes in U.S. foreign policy are likely.

One area where a new direction is desirable is China. Not necessarily policy toward the People’s Republic of China, which is better treated as friend than enemy. Although future developments in the PRC remain uncertain, engagement is more likely than isolation to encourage China to be a responsible international player.

The incoming administration of President-elect George W. Bush should, however, suggest dropping the implicit veto granted the PRC over Taiwan’s admission to the World Trade Organization.

Beijing applied to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs in 1986. Negotiations were suspended between 1989 and 1991, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square killings. The application was then transferred to the WTO in 1995.

Also passed along was Taiwan’s application, pending since 1990. Taipei’s problem stems not from human-rights abuses, but from an uncertain legal status.

When Mao Zedong triumphed on the mainland in 1949, the vanquished Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Taiwan, raising the banner of the Republic of China. Both states claimed to be the sole legitimate Chinese government; the PRC eventually won the diplomatic struggle.

Taiwan remains the true international economic powerhouse, however. In 1999, the island nation of 23 million was the world’s 14th-largest exporter and 15th-largest importer. China ranked higher — ninth and 10th, respectively — but only because it has 60 times the population.

Equally important, Taipei already boasts a market economy. Indeed, it was Taiwan’s dramatic economic progress that reportedly caused China’s former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping to push reform on the Chinese mainland. Beijing has moved far, but still has far to go.

However, the PRC contends that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is properly part. It therefore opposes Taiwanese membership in organizations that require statehood, a stance formally backed by the United States.

To leave Taipei out of the WTO, however, would make a mockery of the organization. So a modus vivendi was arranged: Taiwan applied as the customs territory of Taipei, and China would join first. Then Beijing would not object to Taiwan’s entry.

Taipei has concluded negotiations with individual WTO members and adopted many of the organization’s rules. Moreover, the WTO staff has finished most of the accession documents. But still Taiwan waits because still China tarries.

The PRC passed what seemed to be its most important barrier to joining the WTO with U.S. congressional approval of permanent normal trading relations. Beijing has also been negotiating with other countries and WTO staff to satisfy the organization’s entry requirements.

Yet, points out Greg Mastel of the New America Foundation, recently “Beijing has dragged its feet in negotiations and has seemed to back away from — or try to redefine — the agreement that seemed nearly complete in late 1999.” Whether that reflects factional infighting, reconsideration of the costs of liberalization or a negotiating tactic is unclear.

The unfairness to Taiwan is clear. The Bush administration should suggest that the WTO inform China that it is time to expeditiously wrap up its work — by, say, June — or Taiwan comes in first.

As Mastel points out, Taiwan’s trading partners would benefit from its accession. For instance, the U.S. exports more to Taiwan than to China; the reduced trade barriers promised by the WTO would likely increase U.S. exports of food, semiconductors and other goods.

There is even more at stake, however. The WTO will work best if it operates based on objective rules rather than political favoritism, especially involving a country not yet a member.

Moreover, the PRC needs experience with the rule of law to establish a freer economy and society. The WTO provides the international community with an opportunity to apply that lesson to China.

Finally, Taipei deserves a diplomatic boost. There is a dangerous undercurrent to the occasionally bitter contest between the PRC and Taiwan. Over the last century, the latter has established a separate identity that the PRC could recognize with no loss. But nationalism drives even Chinese expatriates to justify the use of force to establish Beijing’s sovereignty over the island.

The U.S. and other nations, especially its East Asian friends, should avoid the confrontation that would inevitably result from a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence. Nevertheless, they should signal their support for the status quo — the most important aspect of which is Taiwan’s separate existence, even if it is not formally recognized as an independent country.

The WTO’s purpose is economic, not geopolitical. Both China and Taiwan should become members. But if one lags, there is no reason to delay the other.

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