Commentary: How To Handle China: Try Consistency And A Trade Deal

Four years ago, when Taiwan was holding its first democratic presidential election, China took aim. It lobbed missiles over the island, which it considers to be a renegade province, to warn the electorate not to vote for candidates who favored independence. This year, Beijing opted for paper missiles. With Taiwan voters going to the polls on Mar. 18, China has issued a "white paper" that lets Taipei know in no uncertain terms that it must start negotiating on reunification or China will use force. The message is clear, and if relations are mishandled, China and Taiwan could be headed toward a collision--dragging the U.S. along.

Managing relations with China is never easy. This year, it's more complicated than ever, with elections both in the U.S. and Taiwan. Consider the players: There's a discredited, lame-duck President in Washington with a China policy that often lacks consistency and coherence. In Taiwan, pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian could be elected, posing a direct challenge to China's claim of autonomy over the island. There are Beijing's Communist leaders, who will not let Taiwan slip away, even if it means war. Add in a U.S. Congress--and Presidential hopefuls--who score points by standing up to Asia's 800-pound gorilla in defense of Taiwan.

It's up to the Clinton Administration to tactfully address the competing pressures, be they from Congress or from Chinese Communists, rather than being whipsawed by them. While the Administration certainly can't control the partners in this dangerous dance, it can do one thing: ensure that U.S. policy toward both China and Taiwan is consistent. Right now, it isn't. Whenever the Administration is perceived as tilting toward China, Congress steps in to bolster Taiwan--and generally goes overboard. That leads to an outcry from China. When the Administration appears to be favoring Taiwan, Beijing lashes out, often precipitating a crisis in the relationship. "One pushes us, and the others forces us back," notes Harry Harding, dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

In this case, good diplomacy requires a degree of ambiguity. Call Taiwan part of China, yet let it evolve into Asia's most sophisticated democracy. Continue to help Taiwan maintain its defenses at a reasonable level so it can deal with Beijing's missile buildup, but without embracing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. The bill, passed by the House to sharply increase military contacts with Taipei, has lukewarm support in Taiwan and is likely to trigger an even bigger buildup in China. The Administration should reiterate to China that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if Beijing attacks.

NO SENSE. Above all, get China into the World Trade Organization and forcefully lobby Congress to grant it normal trade status. It won't be easy, but the best hope for a peaceful reunification lies in China's--not Taiwan's--transformation. Nothing will speed this process faster than bringing Beijing into the trade body. Once China is in the WTO, it must brace for an eventual onslaught of foreign competition, a move that would accelerate the pace of economic reform.

The argument that the U.S. should punish China for its ham-handed white paper on Taiwan by keeping it out of the WTO makes no sense. That would retard progress in China and play straight into the hands of hardliners.

The U.S. should actively encourage cross-straits dialog and economic ties. Already, Taiwan and China conduct $160 billion in indirect trade. Taipei has invested $24 billion on the mainland, with $20 billion more coming. Taiwan's three top presidential contenders all vow to promote stability by beefing up ties. The U.S. should encourage the winner to live up to that promise.

Clearly, the best option is to hold to a consistent policy while making persistent efforts to integrate China into the world. If that works, Beijing won't be lobbing any kind of missile the next time Taiwan holds elections.

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