THE possible unification of Taiwan with China is now stalemated; a continuation would bring frustration to China, uncertainty to Taiwan, and embarrassment to the United States. But conditions are ripe for change. Both China and Taiwan profess to strive for democracy and the rule of law. On this basis both can work together as friends. The industrial base and economic resources of Taiwan are exactly what China needs for its modernization program. That program is a remarkable opportunity for Taiwan to share the golden age of economic development of China in the next two decades. The two can be mutually beneficial partners.
Whereas China has a population 50 times that of Taiwan, the per capita GNP of Taiwan is 20 times as high. Each can exert a strong hand in the joint venture. The time to act is now; Taiwan's economic trump card would not be as valuable a decade later. All that is needed is a change of thinking -- to declare that the two sides forget about the past and work for the future.
China has announced the principle of ``one nation, two systems,'' a reasonable accommodation which nevertheless implies one nation first and two systems next, as an afterthought. Why not read ``two systems, one nation''? Let the two systems work together for the political and economic modernization of China. One nation will then follow as an afterthought.
Taiwan's goal of ``one nation, one system'' would be realized: That system is democracy and rule by law.
To obtain the unity that has eluded China for a century a 20-year program would not be too long. The program may be shortened, depending on progress.
The first five years would be devoted to the cultivation of friendship and removal of animosity. It might begin with the exchange of athletes and sports teams in the first year and performing artists and theatrical groups in the second. Economic cooperation might commence with the exchange of industrial and technical personnel in the third year.
The fourth year would see government officials on the county level exchanged to discuss local problems such as schools, libraries, and sanitation. Finally, military personnel might exchange visits in the fifth year.
The second five years would be designed to achieve two specific objectives in the process of political modernization: to return the county-level government to the people through election and home rule (already done in Taiwan) and to establish the jury trial system, American style, to try death-penalty cases. Competitive politics can help rejuvenate the sluggish bureaucracy. The American jury system is not the most efficient way to dispense justice, but is the most effective to practice democracy. Let pe ople learn that the government cannot put a defendant to death: Only his peers can.
The third five years would continue the process with two objectives: to return the province-level government to the people and to extend the jury trial when the punishment is 15 or more years of imprisonment.
The final five years would conclude the development of a modern political system, including the establishment of a military separated from politics, as in all modern democratic nations. By that time the revolutionary veterans will have faded away and the historical factor tying the military to politics will have disappeared.
When all the objectives are accomplished, unification would come naturally and might be formalized by a new constitution. Twenty years may seem long, but de facto unification would be at hand before the final formality.
The unification issue cannot be separated from that of the future course of China. The popular talk now is that what is needed is both a material and a spiritual civilization. But the two are contradictory. Unification might be achieved by developing a province-county economy, a compromise between national and individual capitalism, and a system that employs the machinery of market control and profit incentive. But it is a system of, by, and for local so cial-political entities, rather than the individual. Current economic policies and trends point in such a direction.
Such a system would have the merits, yet not the shortcomings, of both extremes. And Hong Kong and Taiwan could mesh smoothly.
Unification of China has been Taiwan's established policy. In a 20-year program as outlined, it would have the economic power to accomplish what military strength cannot do. Japan, a defeated nation, has achieved world prominence by economic development.
The 20-year program is designed so that both sides would have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Economic development would create new social vistas and wash away old political problems.
Peter Fong, professor of physics at Emory University, is the author of a forthcoming book: ``East of Eden: the Evolution of Man and Humanity.''