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China and Taiwan: A Very Slow Waltz

In the euphoria accompanying the peaceful reunification of China and Hong Kong, a discordant background note is clearly audible: With Hong Kong back in the fold, the next step is to arrange the return of the "breakaway" province of Taiwan.

To many people on the mainland, that seems logical, if not a national obligation. The difference between the two situations, however, is profound.

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Without downplaying the great progress that Hong Kong made under British rule, a fundamental logic supported China taking control of its former territory. Hong Kong was an integral part of China when Britain took possession of it in a shameful episode of imperialism at its worst (the 19th century Opium Wars).

Moreover, for a key part of the territory, the lease literally was expiring and the landlord (the government in Beijing) had no desire to renew it. Also, the rule of law the English brought to Hong Kong, while essential to its development, had its limits. The governor was appointed by London. As Hong Kongers have been quick to remind us, the British waited almost a century and a half before introducing a popularly elected legislature.

What about Taiwan? In the long sweep of history, Taiwan's ties to China have been far weaker than Hong Kong's. Over the years, Taiwan has been administered by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Japanese. The island was colonized by Europeans and later taken over by China. The current Beijing leadership has never ruled the area.

China is offering the same deal it struck for Hong Kong: "one country, two systems." As China's Prime Minister Li Peng has stated, "We have consistently stood for reunification ... by peaceful means." He has added ominously, "But we have not forsworn the use of force."

On that score, I recall a meeting last year with officials of a key Chinese city. After the usual pleasantries, we discussed China's relations with Taiwan. I noted that, since President Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, our official policy has been that the United States looks forward to the peaceful unification of China and Taiwan. The leader of the delegation responded with a pointed question, "When the South left the Union, did you use force?" (I replied that we did, but added that the South fired first.)

In any event, the informal but pervasive economic unification of Taiwan and the mainland continues. Thousands of Taiwan companies have moved much of their manufacturing to the mainland, where the work is performed in factories they have invested in and often manage. Travel and telecommunications traffic between the two areas is substantial.

However, Taiwanese investors also have an important presence elsewhere in Southeast Asia. This geographic diversification of their wealth would be encouraged if the current honeymoon between Beijing and Hong Kong were to end abruptly. In the near future, it seems unlikely that Taiwan will voluntarily acquiesce to Beijing assuming sovereignty over it. Yet, it is clear that China would react vehemently, if not violently, to any unilateral declaration of independence. Under the circumstances, a "cooling off" period is very much in order.

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Completion of the integration of Hong Kong into the mainland - without the loss of economic or personal freedoms - would be a positive contribution. It also would help if Taipei ceased its quixotic quest for entry into global organizations where it is subject to Beijing's veto. Such restraint of ego gratification would be tempered by the knowledge that Taiwan has enjoyed economic success and political freedom without those symbols of formal acceptance.

Time, properly utilized, can be on the side of progress in the mutual advance of Taiwan and the mainland. Ill-considered provocations on either side, however, could reduce or even terminate the unprecedented prosperity and individual well-being that the status quo has brought to both. A military showdown between Taiwan and China - no matter what the immediate outcome - would produce losers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

* Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of "The Bamboo Network" (Free Press).

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