Washington Will Be Juggling This Hot Potato For Years

The Clinton Administration and China-watchers across the U.S. political spectrum agree that China isn't about to invade Taiwan and that Taiwan won't provoke the mainland by declaring outright independence. They concur that tensions will ease somewhat after the Mar. 23 Taiwan election.

The problem is that they also agree that Beijing under President Jiang Zemin and Taipei under President Lee Teng-hui hold irreconcilable views of their future relationship. That means frictions aren't likely to subside with the balloting. The key policy debate in Washington suddenly is what deeper role the U.S. must play over the long haul.

Shattered is the blithe assumption on which China policy has been based for two decades. That was that the Taiwan issue would simply fade away. Washington would quietly move closer to Beijing, forsaking formal recognition of the autocratic Nationalists in Taipei. As the U.S. pulled out troops and promised to cut arms sales to the island nation, the betting was this would put enough pressure on Taiwan to come to terms with China, the new U.S. darling.

TOUGH WALK. Instead, China has become the villain in some U.S. eyes, recalcitrant on human-rights issues, a trade rogue, and a bully. Meanwhile, Taiwan has transformed itself into a thriving democracy. "Walking away from Taiwan is much more difficult now that it has elected officials from dog catcher to President," notes Carl W. Ford Jr., a former Asia hand at the Central Intelligence Agency.

The consensus is that the U.S. can't play the role of a mediator as it has in the Middle East. Instead, it will have to exert pressure on both sides to modify their most extreme desires. The trick will be finding a balanced, systematic approach. "If we go after China and don't go after Taiwan, or vice versa, we don't do ourselves any good at all," says Ronald N. Montaperto, a China expert at the National Defense University.

Leaning on Taiwan to scale back its demands for international recognition is relatively easy. China is the tougher problem. But the U.S. may be able to turn the current flare-up to its advantage if it can galvanize world opinion--and business sentiment. China's heavy-handed demands for technology and manufacturing transfers could run into much greater resistance if its military tactics prove destabilizing. "China is not so profitable that countries will calculate only on the basis of market interest," says Douglas H. Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center. "China may be on a more dangerous path than it is aware."

So the goal will be to find the right mix of military, economic, and diplomatic moves that send clear signals to Beijing and Taipei, without getting caught in the middle of a decades-old confrontation. Sustaining that difficult balancing act is going to require a lot more effort--and a lot more years--than anyone in Washington ever imagined.

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