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China-Taiwan relations hold key to stability in East Asia

Posted: Tuesday, November 04, 2008

In the distance lies China, the regional behemoth that has risen to global prominence in a little more than a generation and a top contender for the short list of critical foreign-policy issues facing the next U.S. president. More specifically, the China-Taiwan relationship deserves special priority, for it holds the key to stability and prosperity in East Asia.

The people of Taiwan - including those lining up in large numbers for "American fried chicken" and cola at the popular Fisherman's Wharf in this port near the Taiwan Strait - understand those realities better than most. They have no choice except to deal with China; that interaction can happen in a constructive or destructive fashion. Fortunately, the government of President Ma Ying-jeou is taking numerous steps to expand Taipei's ties with Beijing in areas such as the economy, where mutual interests easily define themselves.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Ma's policies, as underscored by the sizable protests that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party engineered in Taipei late in October. Although some of the outrage stems from the government's new direction, I suspect that most of it has to do with the slumping global economy, which has rocked Taiwan. In addition, it is worth recalling that Ma made his intentions abundantly clear during the campaign for president, and he won overwhelmingly. Thus, while I see reason for his administration to acknowledge and assure protestors, it should stay the course.

In particular, Ma should address the criticism that his attempts to establish closer relations with China could endanger Taiwan's freedoms. I find that hard to believe. In fact, his approach stands to strengthen Taiwan's position by allowing it fuller economic access to China and minimizing the threat of conflict.

Further, Taiwan under Ma is not operating in a vacuum. The Taiwanese people recognize that China's future, and theirs, depends as much on that country's continuing reforms and evolution as anything else. Thus, it is necessary to ask an important question, one that has come up repeatedly during my travels here: How might China look both economically and politically in a half-century?

Many people anticipate that the "status quo" will not change. That would be a less-than-ideal result but certainly not the worst scenario. After all, there is much to like about the current state of affairs, especially in light of the promising cross-strait initiatives.

"Regression," a strong possibility in the early years of China's reforms, has come up only rarely. Most discount the chances of that development because it would work against the interests of so many influential people in the Communist Party, the military, the government and the business sector. I agree.

And then there's "reform" in an accelerated manner, including the political realm. That has been my dream for many years, and quite a few people here share it. In that event, China would find itself in a realm with both the capitalistic and pluralistic features that Taiwan already enjoys. Essentially, China would become a "Big Taiwan."

Now, Taipei did not reach its current status as a political and economic model overnight; it had its own lengthy experience with authoritarian rule. But, over time, the system evolved, and so can China's. Already, the Communist Party has changed in so many ways that the name no longer applies. Indeed, the party's main source of legitimacy stems from a buoyant economy, Should that falter or fail to grow fast enough, I suspect that China's masses would stand up again. Critics may argue that the party, however different, maintains control and has no intention of letting go. I contend that it eventually will have no option, making a "Big Taiwan" scenario increasingly possible within the next half-century.

As we wait for history to decide and I contemplate tasting a 100-year-old egg, the immediate and ongoing emphasis should be on stability and prosperity in the cross-strait relationship. Advancing that goal requires Ma's spirited but sensible engagement of Beijing and the attentiveness of the next American president.

• John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. Readers may send him e-mail at johncbersiamsn.com.



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