Richard Reeves

Old Ideas and Young People Could Mean War

WASHINGTON -- One of the many things that set Washington apart from other medium-size cities in the country is that about half the taxi drivers here seem to have their radios set to National Public Radio. So, when my wife and I got into a cab last Saturday morning, Daniel Schorr was working his way through a complicated explanation of what was at stake in the elections far away in Taiwan.

A few blocks into our ride to Reagan National Airport, the driver said his first words: "God, I miss the Cold War."

So do we all, right up to the president of the United States, who was about to leave for his first trip to the Indian subcontinent, where the situation now is a good deal more complicated than it is in the Formosa Strait. In the not so distant past, one did not have to know anything about the mini-history of "Nationalist China" or of beautiful, dangerous Kashmir. One only had to know that we were the good guys, and the Russians and the Red Chinese were the bad guys.

In fact, the world may be more dangerous at this historical moment than it was during the stalemate of the late Cold War. There was a certain stagnant security in such symbols as the Berlin Wall keeping the superpowers apart in Europe, the U.S. Seventh Fleet preventing the Chinese communists from thinking about invading Taiwan, and the "Line of Control" separating India and Pakistan in Kashmir, with the world believing that the Soviet Union was allied with India and, in an odd turn, the United States and the People's Republic of China backing Pakistan.

The names of Taiwan and Pakistan as we know them are barely 50 years old -- about as old as President Clinton -- and the political and military situations that created them don't mean so much to the new generations suddenly in power in both places.

The election of Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party is the end of 51 years of rule by the Nationalist army -- and its descendants -- that fled to the island province off southeast China, then called Formosa, after losing a civil war to the Communists. (An analogy might be the losers in an American civil war taking over Hawaii.) They called it the Republic of China, believing, as did the leaders of the mainland People's Republic of China, that one day they would rule all China.

But the DPP, Chen's party, is made up of native Formosans and younger Chinese who have never seen the mainland. They know only a prosperous Taiwan and a poor China; naturally they want independence.

Pakistan is 53 years old, a remnant of British India. When the British hastily packed up and left India in 1947, they partitioned off a Muslim country, a union of two heavily Muslim areas in the north of old India. West Pakistan, which we now call Pakistan, was separated by more than 1,000 miles from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after a civil war in 1970. One area was claimed by both India and Pakistan. That area was Kashmir, which was divided by a temporary "Line of Control" drawn, more or less, by the United Nations, with the understanding that a plebiscite of the Kashmiris would allow them to choose whether to be Indians or Pakistanis.

Since Kashmir is heavily Muslim, there was little doubt back then that the vote would favor Pakistan over India, essentially a Hindu country. India, which took military control over most of Kashmir, never allowed that plebiscite. That was then. Now an honest election in Kashmir might choose independence.

Time has passed in both Taiwan and Kashmir; the old lions are dead or dying. Young people, particularly in Taiwan, live in a new world where all-out war seems irrational. But the grandiose old ideas are still there, particularly in Beijing and Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. In both places, new generations of young people may find themselves in war, precisely because they came to think war was impossible.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves