CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Recent complications with regard to visits, or planned visits, by Taiwanese politicians to Indonesia and Thailand serve as new reminders of a most sensitive lingering East Asian issue. The purpose of this article is not to deal with the pluses and minuses of the visits but to try to view the overall China-Taiwan dispute with the least bias as possible. A long time ago, I was professionally involved with both parties of the dispute, a situation that resulted in my acquiring an increased level of appreciation for the great heritage and traditions, as well as the potential for progress and prosperity, that both share.
The uniqueness of this controversy in international relations calls for a dispassionate effort to approach it with measured doses of idealism and pragmatism. From a perspective separate from that of either of the two antagonists or of those who would be most affected by a clash — the United States and neighboring countries — one is tempted to ponder the deeper dimension of the problem: Calls for independence on one side and threats of a punitive invasion by the other.
While it is undeniable that a mature and vibrant democracy of more than 23 million enterprising people can legitimately claim the right to independence, the claim must be endorsed by a convincing majority of votes. At this stage, no one can say for sure whether a referendum would be conclusive. On the other hand, military action from the mainland would be deprived of moral legitimacy as it would be decided and carried forward by a small fraction of the Chinese people as a whole.
Both sides should be absolutely conscious of the devastating consequences for both if one incendiary action leads to retaliation. The potential damage for Taiwan is obvious, while the moral wound to Beijing would take decades to heal — not to mention the extraordinary complications and the level of casualties if the U.S. got involved.
One should not dismiss as rhetoric the repeated threats from the mainland. Recent efforts toward increased military preparedness as well as history point to a determination to back up verbal animosity with a bite in the event of a Taiwanese move toward independence.
At the end of 1949, the People’s Liberation Army failed in an attempt to take over the small Nationalist island of Quemoy. China was preparing to invade Taiwan just before the Korean War. In April 1950, there was an amphibious landing on Hainan that was intended not only to oust Nationalists from there but also to serve as a kind of military rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan itself. In 1958, the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu were heavily bombarded. There is too much at stake concerning the “face” of Beijing to dismiss its threats as pyrotechnics.
As for the “one country, two systems” formula, I side with those who believe that Taiwan cannot be compared with Hong Kong and Macau and, therefore, the formula cannot be applied to the island republic. Even in isolation, Taiwan has demonstrated not only that it can survive but that it can improve on its freedom and progress.
Then what should be done? Which imperfect solution should be advanced? A neutral observer would call for restraint from both sides. Patience is a high virtue, and the Chinese nation has proven through its long history that it can appreciate and practice it. A mutual tacit agreement to abstain from vociferous calls for independence on one side and from equally loud threats of invasion on the other might enable time to effectively solve the problem.
The chasm between the two antagonists has more to do with the system of governance than with racial roots. Mainland China today is not what it was a generation ago; spectacular evolution is still going on. At present, the two systems are far from converging, but they may — or will — do so later on. When this happens, people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait may show more jubilation about their shared “Chineseness” than skepticism because of past governance.
A careful status quo that includes increased economic and other exchanges between the two parties plus a deeper understanding from Beijing of international officials and other contacts between Taipei and the rest of the world — provided that the sensitive issue of sovereignty is not exploited — may create a better atmosphere for all concerned.
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