03/27/2008WASHINGTON -- Ever since the communists overran China in 1949, the once-woebegotten island of Taiwan has been repeatedly the subject of potential conflict between the United States and the Chinese mainland. We seemed to be continually on the verge of all-out "war" with China over the small and trembling republic.
And it wasn't only Taiwan: Islands, straits, coastal areas, Hong Kong, Macao, oilfields, fishing areas -- you name it, we were ready to fight to the death over it!
Then, from 1972 onward, that turbulent relationship changed. Foxy Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger pulled off the amazing feat of slipping through a diplomatic backdoor into communist Beijing and hammering out an agreement that, by linguistic aerobics, has allowed the two countries to live side by side without mayhem.
The perception was that China would eventually gobble up Taiwan and incorporate it into the Chinese mainland. But in the following years, it was "little Taiwan," now with 23 million people compared to China's 1.3 billion, which then proceeded to set the most brilliant pattern for Asian development.
From the 1970s until today, a period when I often visited the country, the Taiwanese government, formed of the local tribesmen and the Chinese legions of anti-communist nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, used their intelligence, their moderation and their respect for the individual (all influenced strongly by American ties) to build a small paradise of development.
While the mainland massacred its people through abominable "Great Leaps Forward" and the viciously anti-cultural Cultural Revolution, the Taiwanese did everything right. In a country with few natural resources, they kept people on the land by locating factories in the countryside instead of allowing them to congest the cities; they invested in small- and medium-sized industries, encouraged private entrepreneurship at every turn, and invested so heavily in computer technology that by 1997, Taiwan had become the third-largest producer of such technology in the world, after the United States and Japan.
In the '90s, they arrived at that magical moment in development and began adapting their autocratic political system into today's extraordinarily effective democratic one.
In spite of China's continued threats against Taiwan, a wonderful development occurred by the time I returned to Taiwan in 2001: Taiwanese businessmen were overwhelming Chinese markets with investment. In that year alone, more than $100 million went out of Taiwan and onto the mainland ($36 billion was already invested there), with more than 60,000 Taiwanese by then living in Shanghai and 50,000 Taiwanese companies operating across that ancient land.
Here is a story not yet fully told. For it is not the huge, cruel colossus of China that has triumphed in the "inscrutable" East, but rather the thoughtful, intelligent, supposedly irrelevant countries that surround it in a necklace of affluent rationality. Not only Taiwan, modern China's historic nemesis, but other small countries have flourished, such as the kingdom of Bhutan in cultural and democratic development, and in particular Singapore, a once-impoverished island that now is a model of sagacious enterprise.
Indeed, all over China today, you see developments marked with the Singapore imprint; along with Taiwan, Singapore helped teach China how to attract international companies, which it has proceeded to do in its own way and with stupendous success.
Now we face the next turn on this historic roadway to development. On March 23, Taiwan again held the elections for which it has become famous -- and which will influence China in the distant future -- and elected as its next president a man who immediately outlined ambitious plans to "revolutionize" economic and security relations with China.
His name is Ma Ying-jeou, and he is almost too good to be true. Fifty-seven years old, he is a handsome man of vigor and intelligence who as a child mastered Chinese classics and calligraphy, who holds a doctorate of juridical science from Harvard University (1981), and who is the head of Chiang's old Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. A winner with 58 percent of the vote, Ma aims eventually for a peace accord ending 59 years of hostility across the Taiwan Strait. And just how?
When I interviewed him in 2001, when he was the popular mayor of Taipei, his words were typical. Asked about the fate of Taiwan's companies in China in the case of a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan, he answered sagely, "Actually, if more Taiwan companies are investing in coastal China, I doubt very much the Chinese could attack -- their missiles would be threatening their own companies."
He also aims to shelve the issue of independence and move on to other concerns. Those would include agreements covering direct airline flights for the first time with the mainland, increased mainland tourism, commercial ties, confidence-building military arrangements and, eventually, a formal end to the state of hostility since his own father fled the bitter shores of China in 1949 with the legendary Chiang Kai-shek.
Ma, who is 57 years old, has already led three years of basically secret contacts between his Nationalist Party and China's Communist one, and here we enter the fascinating zone in which all real progress in the Taiwan Strait has been made.
Ever since the historic Nixon/Kissinger trip, everything that has been accomplished has been in relative secrecy. Meetings were only through semi-official organizations, mainly the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait on the mainland, both founded in the early '90s to avoid the venom associated with direct contact.
The new president has said that using such groups instead of government agencies is like shaking hands while wearing white gloves. Fine. Think of how such indirect diplomacy, or even such secretive diplomacy, could have worked in other areas instead of the pre-emptive American approach of direct attack that has served us so grotesquely across the globe, from Iraq to Somalia to Lebanon.
I'd be more than happy personally to buy the White House some white gloves -- and lessons in diplomacy from Taiwan.