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Two things became apparent during a recent visit to China. One was the vitality of the economy; the critics who fussed over China’s recent export downturn overlooked Beijing’s ability to shift to a domestic demand-oriented economy. The other was the importance of Taiwan in Beijing’s thinking.

True, Taiwan has always been important. No self-respecting government would tolerate the nearby existence of a small, discredited and defeated civil war faction claiming the right, first to counterattack, then to represent the entire nation, and finally to be independent and tie up with China’s enemy, the United States.

But with the reconciliation-minded Ma Ying-jeou elected to the Taiwan presidency last year, the planners on both sides have been working hard to develop closer links. Trade and investment are taking off. At an academic conference I attended in Beijing last month, by far the most popular booth for students and teachers seeking exchange ties abroad was the Taiwan booth.

But obstacles remain. Taiwan’s main opposition grouping, the Democratic Progressive Party, condemns Ma for pushing Taiwan into the same “one-country, two-systems” direction as Hong Kong, with Beijing having ultimate control over Taiwan policies. Ma denies this, but on my China visit it was clear how determinedly Beijing tries to bracket Taiwan visitors with Hong Kong and Macau visitors for special treatment.

At our conference we were given an unusually frank talk by an adviser to China’s National People’s Congress policy planning office, professor Jin Canrong. He warned that the current “window of opportunity” for closer relations might last only three more years, until the next Taiwan elections when growing calls for Taiwan independence would have yet another chance to emerge.

China, too, had a window of opportunity problem, he said. It too could suffer negative leadership changes after three years. Already there were some opposed to the current softer line to Taiwan. When I asked who, he said elements in the Chinese military and some of China’s 300 million “netizens,” both confident of China’s growing strength and international prestige.

One understands the professor’s concern. On the one hand the economic and even social imperative is for Taiwan to seek closer ties to China. People like Ma realize this. But when visiting Taiwan one also senses a popular mood of, if not antagonism, then at least indifference to the mainland neighbor. Long years of island isolation have given the Taiwan people a strong sense of separate identity. Time does not necessarily work in Beijing’s favor. Everything could easily go back to square one, with Beijing again having to threaten rocket attacks to keep Taiwan from seeking independence and U.S. hawks threatening retaliation.

Few remember now, but when the Communist government came to power in Beijing in 1949 the U.S. was happy to abandon the defeated Nationalists in Taiwan. On Jan. 5, 1950, President Harry Truman said: “The United States will not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China.” But the good intentions ended with the outbreak of war in Korea. Taiwan, it was claimed, had to be defended as barrier against communist expansion in Asia, and possibly even as a base for the overthrow of that Communist regime in Beijing, then accused falsely of causing the Korean War.

The result was half a century of strife, suffering, tension and chaos, now only tentatively being overcome. First up were the 1954 and 1958 Taiwan Strait crises, as Beijing sought to recover some offshore islands used by the Nationalists to launch CIA-aided sabotage attacks into China. The U.S. responded by threatening nuclear attack. This led Moscow, then keen for detente with the U.S., to withdraw its nuclear pledge to China.

This in turn led to the Sino-Soviet polemics of the early 1960s, which led many in the West mistakenly to assume that Beijing was so ideologically extreme and aggressive that it had to be stopped through interventions against all leftwing and progressive movements in Asia, beginning with Indonesia (more than half a million dead) then Vietnam (2 million to 3 million dead) and ending up in East Timor (where an estimated one quarter of the population was killed), with uncounted millions killed or maimed elsewhere in between.

Meanwhile, China was reacting with its own disastrous moves — purges of moderates and intellectuals, the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward (some say as many as 20 million starved to death), all culminating in the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution triggered at least in part by the way Tokyo’s double-dealing over Taiwan led to the demise of pro-Japan moderates in Beijing.

It was a classic example of how once Western policies are set in the wrong direction, events can escalate in even worse directions. Students of Western policies toward the Middle East, Africa and Latin America can find many similar examples.

True, it can be argued we are all better off today because Taiwan in 1949 was not absorbed by a China with post-revolution traumas. Protected by the U.S., Taiwan has gradually evolved into the attractive, prosperous and reasonably democratic society we see today. But there were always other solutions.

The Taiwan people are Chinese, think Chinese and speak Chinese just like any other Chinese people. Everything should have been done to persuade the ruling Nationalists to forget past animosities and deal with mainland China sensibly. Indeed, there is evidence Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of and eventual successor to Chiang Kai-shek, the first Nationalist leader in Taiwan, in 1965 wanted to do just that. But U.S. hawks intervened, preferring to keep the animosity pot boiling.

In 1961 I found myself with an Australian delegation sitting alongside Chiang Kai-shek on deck chairs atop a cliff facing the Taiwan Strait as troops with 27-kg packs were parachuted into the sea below and made to swim ashore. There, Chiang said proudly, is how we will recover the mainland from the communist bandits. Few seemed worried by the bizarre stupidity of it all, or the decades of senseless hostility and suffering that would follow.

Back in Canberra and to hoots of hawkish derision (Canberra’s hawks can be even more virulent than the U.S. version, I discovered), I prepared a paper, recently unearthed by researchers, suggesting that if Australia was so worried about China, then one way to ease the tension was to encourage Beijing’s exposure to Taiwan’s noncommunist model. Finally, that is happening, but almost half a century too late.

Gregory Clark is a former China desk officer in the Australian Foreign Ministry. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.

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