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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 1999 /7 Tishrei, 5760

Don Feder

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Taiwan treads water among circling sharks -- TAIPEI -- When Chinese leader Jiang Zemin wakes up in the morning, he probably turns to his wife and says, "You know, my dear, we haven't ruled out the use of force against Taiwan."

This modest island with a mighty economy has become an obsession with China's Marxist rulers. The immediate reunification of Taiwan wasn't on Mao's agenda. (The Great Helmsman said it could take 100 years, if necessary.) Deng was concerned with more pressing matters.

But Jiang is fixated on Formosa. The Middle Kingdom's communist rulers dread the prospect of political change. In the face of growing internal challenges, taking Taiwan is their way of reassuring themselves that they are still in control.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting this week, Jiang set forth two conditions for the visit of his chief negotiator Wang Daohan to Taiwan later this year: 1) Its president, Lee Teng-hui, must retract his July statement that the Republic of China on Taiwan wants special state-to-state relations with the mainland and 2) Lee can only participate in discussions as leader of the Nationalist Party, not as Taiwan's democratically elected president.

For China to negotiate with President Lee would mean acknowledging that there is a government on Taiwan -- one which has ruled the island for the past 50 years and governed democratically since 1987. It's the same government that controlled the mainland from Sun Yat-sen's 1911 revolution to the communist conquest in 1949.

In any negotiations, Beijing insists that the other side accept its premises at the outset. When Britain wanted to open discussions on the future of Hong Kong in the 1980s, the People's Republic demanded that London first concede Chinese sovereignty over the territory. After that, everything else fell into place.

In the case of Taiwan, Beijing wants talks based on the following: 1) There is one China, 2) Taiwan is part of that China and (here comes the knockout punch) 3) the People's Republic is its sole legitimate government. This is what prompted Lee's declaration that Taiwan wished to deal with Beijing as an equal political entity, instead of the alternative -- a rebellious province controlled by the losing side in a civil war.

For, one way or the other, the Taiwanese know that negotiations are coming. Beijing and Washington have the island caught in a pincer move. For the past two years, Clinton has been squeezing Taipei to hold substantive talks with the PRC.

Lee's government would like to start with confidence-building measures, like agreements on fishing rights and immigration. But Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth, the administration's point man here, keeps pushing for "interim agreements," without specifying the nature of the accords.

Presumably they would include a timetable for the integration of this tiny democracy into its totalitarian neighbor, under the "one nation, two systems" formula discredited by Hong Kong's experience.

Clinton's China policy consists of one overriding principle -- keeping the People's Republic happy at all costs. If that means selling pro-Western Taiwan down the river, Beijing's presidential houseboy will do so without regret.

Still, while ritualistically proclaiming that there is one China, Washington consistently acts as if there were two. We have what amounts to an embassy in Taipei (to maintain the pretense of non-relations, it's called the American Institute on Taiwan), which issued 230,000 visas in 1998. Taiwan is America's eighth largest trading partner. With only 21.8 million people, it absorbs 25 percent more U.S. goods than the mainland each year. After Saudi Arabia, it's the major purchaser of American arms. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act commits us to assist in the defense of this un-nation. Taiwan is also a bulwark that sits across Asia's major trade route and separates U.S. friends and allies to the south from our most likely adversary in the next century.

While Taiwan treads water among circling sharks, the administration keeps trying to push it under -- first with the president's recitation of Beijing's "3 nos" last year, then by our expressions of displeasure at Lee's plea for equality and finally in Clinton's refusal to tell Jiang that force against Taiwan will be met with counter force from America.

In this century, the trail of Western betrayals stretches from the Sudetenland to Saigon. In each case, our perfidy has come back to haunt us. Will Taiwan be the latest chapter in this infamous saga?

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate