The Clinton Administration's reported interest in warming up U.S. relations with Taiwan is yet another reminder that in foreign relations even the most apparently settled policies are sometimes--and quite properly--subject to revision.
In this case the changes being considered, as Times staff writer Jim Mann reported the other day, fall well short of being radical. Basically, they aim at making more convenient and effective the conduct of a continuing if deliberately understated relationship. Among the ideas being considered is to allow Cabinet officers from the two governments to visit each other's country, something that has pretty much been banned ever since Washington officially extended diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979 and ended its formal ties with Taipei. Additionally, Taiwan's liaison offices in Washington and other U.S. cities would be allowed to identify themselves more precisely. For the last 15 years those offices have been designated the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, a name so semantically insipid and politically neutered as to leave all but specialists baffled about what it is they do.
U.S. officials emphasize that the modest upgrading in Taiwan's status that is being pondered doesn't affect Washington's one-China policy. Since 1972, when President Richard Nixon's visit to China ended a 23-year freeze in bilateral relations, U.S. policy has accepted that Taiwan is part of China, and that it is up to the Chinese to work out their political future. In fact, in recent years Taiwan and the mainland have greatly expanded relations in such areas as trade and tourism, though their political differences remain unresolved.
The United States has become Taiwan's foremost trading partner, while Taiwan is now the sixth-biggest market for American products, including hundreds of millions of dollars a year in military supplies. Putting relations on a more open basis certainly is worthwhile and can be done without downgrading relations with Beijing or compromising previous agreements. China may not like it, but the question is what kind of policy best serves overall U.S. interests. The answer in this instance is a policy whose chief purpose is to make it easier to carry on regular business with a key trading partner.
The see-no-Taiwan, speak-no-Taiwan policy of the last 15 years has sometimes been carried to self-humiliating lengths. Thus when Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui two months ago asked permission to rest for a night in Honolulu while on a flight to Central America the State Department refused, fearing that to grant permission might upset Beijing. If a new approach to Taiwan does nothing else than put an end to such indefensibly craven behavior, it would have to be considered a plus.