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Upgrade Taipei's Status

PRESIDENT Clinton is expected soon to modestly upgrade Taiwan's diplomatic status in Washington. Such a move would inject a note of common sense into United States relations with Taiwan.

Since Taiwan's ouster from the United Nations in October 1971, and since the US shifted its diplomatic recognition of China to Beijing in 1979, Washington's relations with the island have been conducted under increasingly Byzantine rules. Those rules, as well as a 1982 agreement with China to reduce arms sales to Taiwan, didn't prevent the US from selling nearly $6 billion worth of F-16 fighters to Taipei in 1992. Nor did they prevent the US from exporting some $16.25 billion of goods, vs. $8.7 billion to mainland China, last year. Yet the rules do lead to absurdities such as a refusal to allow Taiwan's president to leave his plane or spend the night during a refueling stop in Hawaii on a trip from Taiwan to Central America.

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Some details of the new policy are still being worked out. In general, however, the changes will make it easier for US and Taiwanese officials to visit each other's countries and for Taiwanese officials to meet with their US counterparts in federal buildings.

The change comes in a context of gradually thawing political relations and growing trade links between Taipei and Beijing. Representatives of semiofficial organizations from each side (China officially views Taiwan as a breakaway province) signed agreements last week dealing with hijackers and illegal immigration. The negotiator from the mainland was Tang Shubei, vice chairman of the semiofficial organization set up to handle cross-straits issues. He was the highest-ranking official so far to hold talks with his Taiwanese counterparts.

Taiwan is viewed as one of the region's ``tiger'' economies and is undergoing political liberalization after years of one-party rule. While the US is right to defer questions of Taiwan's sovereignty to Bejing and Taipei, relegating Taiwan to the diplomatic back door is a relic that needs to be shed.

China has not renounced the use of force as it pursues the goal of bringing Taiwan under Bejing's control. Moreover, Beijing is concerned about the increasing numbers of Taiwanese who favor independence. The shift in Washington's approach should serve notice that while the US supports a peaceful process for resolving issues between the island and the mainland, it views Taiwan as too important a regional player to write off.

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