Mapping Path for China-Taiwan Relations Budding Rapproachment Bewteen Mainland and Island Is Driven by Taipei's Economic Strength and Family Ties

Article excerpt

HOW can tiny Taiwan, with 20 million people, negotiate on equal terms with a government that rules more than a billion? "Island China" occupies a space smaller than Florida; the mainland People's Republic of China (PRC) is as large as the United States. Fear that it would be overwhelmed, along with a deep dislike for Chinese communists, long held back the Taiwan government from any direct dealings with Beijing.

Both sides discarded their inhibitions and met recently in Singapore. Representatives from Taipei and Beijing disagree on many things, but they have agreed to meet on a regular basis.

To be sure, Taipei still refuses official contacts with Beijing. The Singapore meeting was ostensibly between two "private" organizations: the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association of Relations Across the straits in mainland China.

The Republic of China (ROC) has proved its staying power. Chiang Kai-shek "lost" mainland China, but he and the Kuomintang made a new start in Taiwan. The foundations for rapid economic growth were laid in the 1960s and '70s and resulted in annual growth rates above 10 percent in the '70s and '80s. By the mid-1980s, Taiwan's horde of foreign currency approached $80 billion, the largest in the world on a per capita basis.

Taiwan in the '80s became not only an economic but a political model of development. Income differentials narrowed significantly, both in the countryside and in the city.

The wealthy became richer, but so did the rest of the population. In 1986 President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law; opened the gates to investment and trade with the mainland; and permitted a genuine opposition party to compete with the Kuomintang and win seats in the legislature.

Mr. Chiang responded to three factors. First, Taiwan businessmen wanted to put their capital to work in the huge mainland market. They wanted to use the cheap labor available there and establish factories, including polluting ones, for which there was little room in Taiwan.

Second, older Chinese on Taiwan wanted to visit their relatives and birthplaces before it was too late. The place of sentiment cannot be overestimated in intra-Chinese developments.

Third, Taiwan's overall fitness exceeded China's. This made China the suitor, and it also helped Taiwan to consider dealing with Beijing, despite its small stature. …