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Monday, May 26, 2008

A winner that Beijing would be wise to cheer


LOS ANGELES — Not every election has significant international repercussions, to be sure. Some are scarcely noteworthy even in the places where they occur. But in March there was a monster piece of an election in East Asia, and early last week the landslide winner was celebrated in happy parties all over the globe.

It's remarkable when you think about little Taiwan — the offshore island of just 23 million people although around the world there must be untold multiples of them. The other day, it felt as if a few million of them alone were packed into the auditorium of the Culture Center of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Taiwan supporters and relatives from Southern California jumped around the room as if partying for the Chinese New Year. Viewing a live TV-feed from Taipei, the cramped crowd erupted into something akin to delirium when the new president took the podium. His name is Ma Ying-jeou, 57, he went to Harvard, and my wife volunteers that he is quite good looking.

Handsome or whatever, he gave a terrific inaugural speech that is important for everyone. That's because the policy directions taken in Taipei regarding its head-to-head relationship with Beijing could help determine whether a war erupts in Asia someday.

China has repeatedly said such will be the case if Taiwan declares itself officially a separate and distinct nation. Right now ambiguity hangs over the relationship that Beijing wants to defog: It wants to convert the island into a kind of Hong Kong special administrative region.

Taiwan's prior president was thunderously against any sort of Hong Kong-ization, but he went about that course in such a way as to maximize the diplomatic goading of the mainland giant — and the irritation of Washington, always eager for some peace and quiet across the strait.

Ma's way is different. For him almost all issues are negotiable, the mainland as well as Taiwan deserves respect and the two must live in an arrangement of peace and stability.

But his populace is roughly divided into two camps — those who could live with some kind of vague but unoppressive unification, and those who believe any sort of unification, no matter how delicately implemented, would be the beginning of Taiwan's death. With that divided polity under his feet, Ma — former mayor of Taipei — must execute a kind of diplomatic foxtrot just to keep his political balance. That's why his initial speech as president was a work of considerable diplomatic artifice.

He avoided antagonizing the mainland while not giving the keys to the island to Beijing. Instead of speaking in grand (and illusive) concepts, he proposed practical, step-by-step negotiations designed to build confidence and trust.

One possible early agreement: direct air travel between the two capitals. Right now that lack of connection is almost a Kafkaesque joke. If you're in Taipei, you have to fly to Hong Kong or Tokyo, for example, and then onto Beijing. This is a waste of everyone's time, money and gas.

Once there are direct flights, there can be direct talks. Beijing will want to start up on the sovereignty questions, but Ma will probably want to emphasize economic issues. The little guy always has to be extra cautious when negotiating as an "equal" with the bigger guy.

Beijing would be well advised to play along with Ma. On the economic front, after all, China is already Taiwan's No. 1 export market and biggest trading partner. Two-way trade last year reached a record $102 billion. With such a good thing going, the two sides need to do everything possible to keep it up. Besides, cold economics, after all, has a way of clarifying one's mind.

If there's money in a close relationship, why play with matches and risk torching success? Since people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are making money, what really is the argument for raising tensions and moving again toward enmity through incautious reunification?

Beijing needs to recognize a few things squarely. The situation in Tibet is a mess, even though a measure of negotiation has begun. So the Chinese could use an era of peace and civility in the Taiwan direction.

Second, the Chinese have the gargantuan Summer Olympics to get through, and it's going to take every bit of their energy and focus to make it to the finish line with dignity as well as flair.

The final point is that it is very unlikely that Beijing, for the foreseeable future anyway, will find a better man with whom to negotiate than Ma. He's sensible, international, and strong on vision.

Ma wants to lift the touchy bilateral relationship out of the basement of adolescent rivalry and into the master sitting room of adult diplomacy. China should exert every effort to work with him to its greatest abilities.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." © 2008 Tom Plate


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