Taiwan, in the Middle, Frets, but Glimpses a Future

Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. E-mail:

The Taiwanese can take a diplomatic punch with the best of them, but I figured this place was in for a difficult week. With the world’s eyes glued on the dramatic history unfolding in the much larger China, who would care about the other, so much smaller, China? Would the two big boys, as if in some geopolitical garage sale, conspire to sell out tiny Taiwan?

Tensions here, as on the Korean peninsula or the South Asian subcontinent, are never far below the surface. Two years ago, the two Chinas almost came to blows over Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, drawing American gunboats to the scene. So as the U.S. president went calling on the ancient China of 1.2 billion people, I went calling on the other China, of 21 million. Sisy Chen, a feisty opposition-party legislator, confirmed the island’s summit-shock anxiety: “Clinton’s summit interrupts our fragile confidence in facing down the People’s Republic. We don’t want to feel like an abandoned orphan.”

It’s not easy to envision the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, ever abandoning Taiwan, one of the world’s smallest and newest--unless, that is, Taiwan were to oppose, publicly or privately, America’s historic effort (begun by Richard Nixon and continued by Bill Clinton) to induce the People’s Republic of China to buy into the real world. But Taiwan, for all the fiery anti-communism in its belly, is not likely to steer such an obstructionist, self-destructive course. Su Chi, a high-level advisor to Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui, understands what’s at stake: “The U.S. is rightly and intelligently using this trip to open the door to China, bringing outside air to the mainland, making the PRC more mellow.”

But it is difficult emotionally for many people in Taiwan, steeped in unremitting hatred of the PRC (as those in China are of Taipei), to accept America continuing to pressure both sides in such a way that U.S. policy and historical necessity someday will compel the Taiwanese to cut a deal with the mainland. No one wants to see the Taiwan phenomenon snuffed. But if China is not going to go away, the Taiwanese need to play their cards right. And the biggest card they have is their track record as an innovative pluralistic democracy that’s a big economic player (importing almost twice as much from the U.S. every year as China, Taiwan is America’s seventh largest export market). They therefore urgently require a new, post-summit diplomacy that deflects punches they cannot take--direct dustups with Beijing over sovereignty issues--while launching offensives in which they can excel--international cooperation in economic development, for instance.


And Taiwan needs to do a better job at threat assessment: The most pressing threat to this capitalistic island isn’t political, and it isn’t in Beijing; it’s economic, and it’s in Tokyo.

Modern times create new threats that transcend old ones. As Chen Shui-bien, Taipei’s popular mayor who faces a tough reelection test this fall, put it: “Unless the eventual outcome of the summit is dramatically bad for Taiwan, the electoral effect of the Asian flu will be greater than the summit.” In a world of newly proliferating nuclear arsenals, some kind of catastrophic nuclear exchange can’t of course be ruled out. But the greater immediate threat to Asia’s well-being is economic--a “yen bombshell” that could implode national banks and lay waste entire economies.

Judging by their staunch efforts to maintain the value of their yuan amid all the currency devastation in Asia, the new leaders of mainland China understand this. In the coming regional retrenchment, attrition and perhaps recession, Beijing may well lean harder on Tokyo to achieve rapid economic reform than on Taipei to achieve rapid reunification. Indeed, last week it tendered an offer for general cross-strait talks in Shanghai that seemed to avoid agenda preconditions. Taiwan of course hemmed and hawed, projecting to the world the image of North-Korea-style rejectionism. The truth is that Taiwan needs a regionally cooperating mainland at least as much as the rest of Asia. Said Eric T. Wu, outspoken chairman of the blue-chip Taiwan Securities Co. Ltd: “Taiwan’s biggest problem right now is really the Japanese. If the Japanese don’t get back on the right track, it will bring everyone down, including us. The U.S. is the only one now that can save Asia from regional recession, if not worse.” But the U.S. cannot do it alone, certainly not without China playing a constructive role. That’s why when President Clinton showed up in Beijing, this major diplomatic initiative served not just America’s interest but Taiwan’s as well.

Right now the economy here is heading for trouble, and China is an unavoidable player in the fight against Asian economic collapse. Clinton’s approach to China has been called a policy of engagement. That’s far too tame a term now. Instead, it’s a policy of necessity. The smart people here know that Taiwan needs to applaud and support Clinton, start working with rather than fencing with Beijing (and expect the same from China), and keep cajoling the Japanese to get with the program. Asia needs as much leadership as it can get right now. Successful, increasingly democratic Taiwan can help provide it.