Strait Choice

Article excerpt

'After the successful resolution of the Hong Kong and Macau issues, people are naturally turning their eyes beyond the Taiwan Strait - where lies the final leg of China's reunification march.' That was the view of China's official Xinhua News Agency in December as officials hauled down the Portuguese

flag over the first - and last - European colony in East Asia, and China declared Macau the second of its Special Administrative Regions after Hong Kong. In case the message should be lost on 'Taiwan compatriots', the agency added,'Chinese leaders have said on many occasions that settlement of the Taiwan question cannot be delayed indefinitely. With Macau's return to the Motherland, the Taiwan issue is urgently placed before the entire Chinese people!

TAIWAN, OR THE REPUBLIC of China on Taiwan as it prefers to be known, is indeed the last remaining territory severed from China in the nineteenth century yet still outside the control of the People's Republic - the entity all but about thirty countries regard as the sole legitimate government of China. In this context, the idea that the recovery of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau last year under the 'one country, two systems' principle has paved the way for complete reunification on Beijing's terms, has a certain logic.

It is also full of errors, some of them dangerous. Firstly, Taiwan's historical experience is fundamentally different from that of the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macau. Secondly, China's resumption of sovereignty over Taiwan would diminish the island's democracy, and afford Beijing control over Taiwan's technological prowess as well as its strategic location.

In the absence of significant political reform in China, none of these outcomes is desirable - whether for the Taiwanese, the West or Japan. Chinas reunification is, therefore, far from purely a 'domestic' problem as Beijing insists. It concerns the security of East Asia and is of considerable importance for the rest of the world.

A consideration, firstly, of Taiwan's size and weight reinforces the point. The island is home for twenty-two million people whose average per capita Gross National Product in 1998 was just over $12,000, compared with about $700 on the mainland. Taiwan's foreign exchange reserves, close to $100 billion, are among the world's largest - though they are far less than Beijing's $150 billion.

Taiwan is one of the world's biggest trading nations, and a leader in the manufacture of information technology products. Its economic weighting, like its population, far exceeds that of Hong Kong, while any comparison with Macau, a tiny territory of less than 500,000 people, is almost meaningless.

Neither does historical experience unite what, until recently, Beijing regarded as its three lost territories. Colonial rule came to an end in Taiwan in 1945 with the defeat o0apan. Since then it has been ruled by the Republic of China, whose central government relocated to Taipei in December 1949 following the victory on the mainland of Mao Zedong's communist armies.

Chinas present division is a legacy of civil war rather than colonial conquest Theoretically, and to a large extent in practice, its future is less an object of diplomacy - negotiations with a third or sovereign party - than a matter for discussion between Chinese.

However, this has made the division harder rather than easier to end. Beijing and Taipei stopped shelling each other's territories in the ig7os, but while the guns have fallen silent, China's civil war remains unfinished. Taiwan no longer claims sovereignty over the mainland - thus its redefinition in 1991 as the Republic of China on Taiwan; and it has abandoned all dreams of recovering the Mainland militarily.

Yet Taipei remains the seat of a rival Chinese government - a rival to that in Beijing which, though Communist, has inherited the insistence on unity and central control - as well as the fear of secession - exhibited by most of its predecessors, republican and imperial. …