China is mounting a many-pronged peace offensive aimed at Taiwan, and President Reagan must decide whether to be a bystander or to try to be a mediator.
Reports from Washington say some of Mr. Reagan's foreign policy advisers are intrigued by the possibility of a mediation a la Camp David, although there has been no official indication the President has chosen this course.
Here in Peking, where Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon launched the idea during a visit last month, there is official silence. But so far there has been no attempt to shoot down the idea.
China appears to be waiting to see, first whether President Reagan is receptive to the idea of mediation, and Second, if so, what he will propose to China and to Taiwan.
There is plenty of opportunity for high-level contacts between Peking and Washington. A new American ambassador fluent in Chinese, Arthur Hummel, has just arrived in Peking. The United Nations corridors in New York during the current General Assembly session furnish another opportunity for top diplomats to get together privately. And Mr. Reagan and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang will have a tete-a-tete at next month's North-South summit in Cancun, Mexico.
Reunification of China -- that is, the return of Taiwan -- is one of the three major tasks Peking has set for itself during the 1980s. The other two are opposition to Soviet hegemonism and the economic construction of China.
Peking's immediate goals on Taiwan are believed to be modest. China, under Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping is devoting almost all its energies to modernizing the economy over the next 20 years.
Mr. Deng and his associates know this is a long process, and they need stability within and around China to achieve it. They are even willing to risk a degree of dissatisfaction within the military establishment by giving low priority, at least for the present, to the defense budget.
In this context, Messrs. Deng and company must know that reunification of Taiwan can come only as the result of a long, gradual process in which China gathers economic strength and Taiwan begins to find it disadvantageous to remain outside China's economic and political orbit.
They would be satisfied, some observers here believe, to conduct toward Taiwan a prolonged period of what might be called "pingpong diplomacy" -- the seven-year process whereby Washington and Peking gradually achieved normalization of diplomatic relations. Between Taipei and Peking, the process is bound to take much longer than seven years.
The important thing, Peking feels, is that there be at least some movement, however slow, toward reunification.
So far all the movement has come from Peking. Taiwan has rejected every proposal from the mainland, including postal ties, exchanges of visits, and trade.
Peking has unilaterally abolished customs duties on goods imported directly from Taiwan. Taiwan has not reciprocated. Peking says Taiwan may retain its own Army, its own economic and political decisionmaking ability. It says the islanders will not lose their high standard of living or their noncommunist social system after reunification.
Most recently Mr. Deng has even suggested co-leadership between the Communists and the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) which rules Taiwan.
The 70th anniversary of the 1911 revolution led by Dr. Sun Yatsen is Oct. 10. This revolution toppled the corrupt Qing (Ching) dynasty and turned China into a republic.
Taiwan claims to be the direct heir of this revolution.
But Peking also honors Dr. Sun as a nationalist forerunner of the communist revolution. Communists and Kuomintang cooperated during the 1920s against the northern warlords and during the '30s and '40s against Japan. They can do so a third time, said Mr. Deng in a recent interview.
"The Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party can cooperate for a third time," Mr. Deng said. "They can compete with each other. They can even lead together."
Perhaps, in the weeks ahead, Peking will spell out in greater detail what co-leadership means -- whether, for instance, it would offer Taiwan's President Chiang Chingkuo (son and heir of Chiang Kaishek) not only effective control over Taiwan but a vice-premiership in Peking as well.
What would be the American interest in promoting a reconciliation between Peking and Taiwan?
Hitherto State Department professionals have generally been wary of inserting the United States into the quarrel between Peking and Taipei. They remember the unsuccessful mission led by Gen. George Marshall in 1947 to try to achieve peace between nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek and communist leader Mao Tse-tung.
But some China analysts contend that the United States is squarely in the middle of the Peking-Taipei dispute because it is the only external source of arms for Taipei and its only guarantor against a military takeover attempt by Peking. At the same time, the Reagan administration, like its Democratic predecessor, wants an ever-closer strategic cooperation with Peking in the face of what it sees as Soviet expansionism around the globe.
These two contradictory policies can be reconciled only so long as the Taiwan Strait remains calm, only so long as tension between Peking and Taipei does not reach such a level that Washington is forced to choose between one or the other.
Yet the status quo between Peking and Taipei is inherently unstable. Peking refuses to publicly abandon the use of force against Taiwan because, its officials candidly acknowledge, this is the only leverage they have against the Nationalists. With modernization in the years ahead, Peking will acquire economic and other forms of leverage as well.
From Taiwan's viewpoint, therefore, it could be argued that the earlier it negotiates with Peking, the more cards it holds in its own hands. Perhaps the persuasion of an American president who at least during the election campaign, was more pro-Taiwan than any of his recent predecessors, would provide the opportunity for Taiwan to dip its toes in the risky waters of negotiation.
President Reagan's intervention, if he does decide to try it, will win dramatic headlines around the world. But its purpose would be quite limited. It is not a final solution to the Peking-Taipei dispute that the President will be seeking -- only the opening of a dialogue.
The most that dialogue can be realistically expected to achieve would be some recognition by Taiwan that China is one and that Taiwan is part of that oneness. In return, Peking would probably have to concede a large degree of independent decisionmaking powers to Taiwan, of de facto, as distinct from de jure, independence.
Precisely what formula will satisfy the twin requirements of symbolic oneness and substantive separateness is a matter to be settled between the two parties.
But the Reagan administration, given its overall anti-Soviet strategy, has so large an interest in the outcome that it is understandably being tempted at least to consider how it might help to get the dialogue started. That means persuading Taiwan more than persuading Peking.