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Taiwan's relations with mainland China: what US should do

October has two anniversaries that make it a convenient time to reflect on the ongoing dilemma of the Taiwan question. Oct. 10 is the anniversary of China's revolution in 1911, which overthrew the Manchu dynasty and created the Republic of China. The government in Taipei considers itself the direct successor to the 1911 revolution, so Oct. 10 is Taiwan's national day. Taiwan's calendar begins with this revolution, so in Taiwan this is year 73, not year 1984.

On the mainland, the main day is Oct. 1. That day marks the date of the establishment of the communist government in 1949, 35 years ago. The intractability of the Taiwan question stems from the fact that both in Peking and Taipei, Taiwan is considered part of China. Taiwan was lopped off from China by Japan in 1895, and it was returned to China in 1945. When the Nationalists moved to Taiwan in 1949, however, they did not set up a government of Taiwan. Rather they continued the government of China, relocating it in one province, while regrouping forces to recover the mainland.

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Today, 35 years later, Taiwan's government still claims to be the rightful government of China. It has just sent out an internal memorandum reminding its representatives to refer to the Republic of China in Taiwan, not to the Taiwan Government. Taiwan's political structure is still based on the Chinese Constitution of 1947, written when the Nationalist Party still ruled the mainland. There are separate central and provincial governments. In the National Assembly, elected in 1948 from all provinces, Taiwan has less than 10 percent of the seats. New elections are being delayed until the Nationalists put down the ''communist bandit rebellion.''

From a mainland perspective also, Taiwan is indeed part of China. The separation from China for almost a century is a brief interlude in the flow of Chinese history. China is still in the two-century process of recovering its status as a great power, which it lost as the Ching dynasty collapsed and as the West invaded.

Fortunately the Chinese historical sense, which creates the Taiwan problem, can also solve it by pushing it into the future. Peking is offering Taiwan virtually full independence, including autonomy for military, financial, and trade relations. It will send no troops, no administrators, no representatives at all. Taiwan essentially need only give up its flag and its claim to be the true successor to Sun Yat-sen's Oct. 10, 1911, revolution.

How long could things go on this way? A long time. Peking has promised 50 years of stability, autonomy, and capitalism for Hong Kong after its lease expires in 1997. The experience of Hong Kong will set the tone for the long-term evolution of Taiwan. This means that the tough questions for Taiwan would come up after 2047, 63 years from now.

What will happen in the interval is extremely unpredictable. China is trying to create a suitable legal and economic environment in which Hong Kong's vigorous, cosmopolitan entrepreneurs can function, and it is also experimenting with major restructuring of its command economy. Clearly Peking hopes that in the future it will be easier to reunify China.

What can be done now? Here is one package of ideas for quiet exploration:

1. We can continue to reaffirm our concern about the future freedom and prosperity of our friends in Taiwan. It is important to help maintain the confidence of Taiwan's business community, lest it set in motion a downward spiral of capital transfers that would push Taiwan into an economic depression that could destabilize East Asia. If Taiwan remains vigorous, Peking will be especially careful with Hong Kong.

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2. We can be equally clear that we have no national interest in dwelling in the past and fighting China's civil war again, even symbolically. We should not support the mythology that the Nationalist Party may yet win the Chinese civil war.

By setting an example for economic development in Taiwan, the Nationalist Party has had a substantial effect on policy in the mainland. To have an impact on China's political-legal system as well, the Nationalist Party should explore a new coalition with the communists.

3. There is no reason that Taiwan's domestic political system should be governed by China's Constitution of 1947. Taiwan needs a new constitution, and this should be feasible within the context of the new (1982) mainland Chinese Constitution, which suggests that Taiwan can become an autonomous region. The selection of Taiwanese-born T. H. Li as new vice-president and the release of political prisoners are important steps forward. The Nationalist Party's final challenge is to reconcile Chinese authoritarian Confucianism with contemporary values of law and democracy. This will strengthen Taiwan's (and Hong Kong's) position in future negotiations with Peking.

4. Current international practices (of the Commonwealth and the two Germanys) create ways for political entities to maintain a theory of unified sovereignty while having functional independence. There ought to be a way to form a new Chinese commonwealth, including the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. This should provide Taiwan with full, official diplomatic status in its bilateral and multilateral relations. (After all, individual Soviet republics have United Nations representation; and Commonwealth members have full diplomatic status.)

5. Above all, we must be patient. It is sobering to think how much violence has accompanied unsuccessful attempts of regions of countries to secede and form new countries. Tragic examples include our own civil war, Katanga, Biafra, and Eritrea. One of the few successful secessions was that of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and that was not peaceful.

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