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Jewish World Review March 23, 2001 / 28 Adar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Lost causes found, or: Small nation, great people -- I seen 'em come, I seen 'em go. They arrive in newspaper offices with little cards identifying themselves as representatives of a nation, a state, a dream we may know little about. Just another people trying to stay on the map, keep their language, break their bonds, become their own masters, defy the odds. They don't know it can't be done. Some even do it. Armenians, Biafrans, Bosnians, Israelis, Kosovars, Kurds, Montagnards . . . they come, they go.

Some of these refugee states used to be called Captive Nations when there was still a Soviet Union to oppress them. Congress would pass a resolution on their behalf every year, but little else.

Even the annual Captive Nations resolution irritated sophisticates like J. William Fulbright, senator and statesman from Arkansas. Such gestures, he warned, might offend the Soviets, cause trouble, get us involved. As if we were not involved in others' struggles for freedom by our very nature, and by the nature of the enterprise we began in 1776.

How strange that decades-old debate sounds now. As it turned out, the small nations survived, and it was the Soviet Union that disappeared. How could that be? It was supposed to be a permanent fact of international life, or so we were told, usually in the most condescending fashion by our "experts.'' They'd taken everything into consideration except the human desire for freedom.

Back then, emissaries from these little lost causes were dismissed as hopeless, even comical, figures -- like those White Russians who used to drive cabs in the Paris of the '20s. Who could know that one day the czar and his family would be disinterred from an old abandoned mine and given a state funeral? That St. Petersburg would be St. Petersburg again? That one little captive nation after another would re-enter history?

These troublesome little peoples turned out be the wave of the future. Well, the mist of the future, for their chances seemed so slight. Their prospects still do.

There is something special about the visitors from Taiwan. They represent a small state, but a great people. Their cause is not just their own, and the tyrants on the Chinese mainland know it. That's why still-Communist China fears little Taiwan and has been so eager to absorb it, extinguish its light, snuff it out. This it calls unification.

Taiwan represents no military threat to the strangely named People's Republic of China, which is none of those. Taiwan has no large standing army poised to invade the mainland; its strategy emphasizes air and naval defenses.

But by its very existence, a free China, a Republic of China , represents the gravest of threats to the other China, which is a republic in name only. Taiwan gives people on the mainland ideas, and nothing is more dangerous to a Communist regime than ideas.

You wonder if the last great Communist behemoth will succeed in its designs, or if it'll go the way of the other evil empire. A lot depends on whether Beijing can take over this stubborn little outpost just off its shores. There'll always be an England, they say, but will there always be a Taiwan?

It's a question that's been asked since 1949, when the Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists into exile. Many things have changed since then: Formosa has become Taiwan, and Taiwan is no longer the exclusive domain of an exiled Chinese generalissimo.

Instead, this island of 22 million people has become a vibrant democracy with a free market, a thriving economy and at least three political parties. Not long ago its presidency changed hands in a dramatic swing of the political pendulum. The only thing that hasn't changed for Taiwan is the danger from the mainland.

Taiwan doesn't have an embassy or consulates in this country, not any more. Ever since the Nixon administration, the United States has recognized the other China.

So our Taiwanese visitors formally represent only an economic and cultural office in Houston. An "economic and cultural office'' that seeks Aegis anti-missile destroyers to maintain the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait.

The names of these visitors out of Houston may change from time to time as their diplomatic tours begin and end, but their message remains the same:

Sell us the arms to deter any attack on our island, and we can outlast the Communists. It may take another generation, but things will change. Just give us the defensive weapons we need, and we can hold out till a freer China emerges.

The weapons are needed to offset the always advancing threat from the mainland. Every year for the past 10 years, Communist China has announced a 10 percent increase in its military budget. And that's just the publicized budget. It doesn't include separate purchases from Russia, let alone the secret military budget that is as much a part of totalitarian regimes as, well, secrecy.

This year, Beijing raised the ante. Dramatically. It announced not a 10 percent increase but a 17 percent increase in its military budget, for a total of $17 billion in military spending. The missiles have begun to sprout by the hundreds on the mainland.

The message is clear: Communist China would like to absorb Taiwan the way it is absorbing Hong Kong, peacefully if possible but if necessary by force.

Beijing has even described the three circumstances in which it would use force against Taiwan: If the island declares its independence, if it takes too long to join the mainland, or if it allows foreign forces, that is, Americans, to intervene.

What is the best response American diplomacy can make to these less than subtle threats?

Washington can keep Taiwan strong enough to deter an invasion on its own. The surest way to avoid being drawn into a war is to deter it.

And time is on the side of freedom. So is the technological revolution in communication. The Soviets used to require that typewriters be licensed, but that didn't stop the spread of free ideas. How is Beijing going to control its subjects' thoughts in this age of the Internet?

The longer any confrontation can be put off, the more likely Communist China is to follow the Soviet Union into oblivion. Even now the limited freedoms on the mainland threaten to grow out of Beijing's control and upset the best-laid Communist plans.

The trick -- for Taiwan and the free world -- is to hold on, and wait for a Chinese Gorbachev to emerge, some fool who thinks he can "reform'' communism without destroying it, who believes that he can introduce only a little freedom, perhaps only a free market, and the people will be content and demand no more. For all its omniscience, The Party doesn't understand the dynamic appeal of freedom. Neither did the Soviets.

In dealing with Beijing, Washington need not retreat nor provoke, but only arm its ally, stand fast, and wait. Already the outdated structures of party and state on the mainland shudder under the pressures of an awakening people. Time and technology may do what military force cannot. Clever people, these Chinese. They will not be kept down forever. Or maybe for much longer.

What the West may require most in this endgame is just a little oriental patience. Lost causes have a way of being found.

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