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Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008

Ma goes for Taiwan gold in matters of trust


LOS ANGELES — A true winner came to Los Angeles earlier this month. He is Chinese, but he has had nothing to do with the Beijing Olympics. He is very important, though, because in his hands lie one of the keys to peace in Asia.

He cannot take credit for the hyped-up ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He is far more modest than its computer- generated "fireworks" and far more straight with facts than the listed ages of Chinese girl gymnasts, utterly brilliant and deserving though they were.

He is Taiwan's president. Please note that Taiwan is the China you won't hear much about during the Olympics. Beijing officially views it as a nonexistent state entity — as little more than an offshore island, separated from the mainland by about 160 km of sea, an illegal breakaway province.

It is not officially recognized as an independent state by either the United Nations or the United States. If it ever declared official independence, then the big China says it would react militarily. If it did — and I think it might very well do so — the U.S. may have to do more to help little China than it has done for little Georgia in its current struggle against the Russian Bear.

Taiwan counts for a lot in part because of its enormous economic, political and cultural success, and in part because Beijing wants it back so badly. Despite what the rest of the world may think, most of Taiwan's 22 million people think of their island as a real country. They point out that they have their own military, their own democracy, their own media, their own border controls, their own legislature, and their own elected president. At the same time, few wish to be wiped off the face of the earth by Chinese MIGs.

The new president was elected back in March, and this was his first visit to the U.S., which was actually a quick stopover on his way to official visits in Latin America. The timing was fortuitous: Beijing was too bogged down running the Olympics to pay much notice of Ma Ying-jeou's travels.

Truth be told, Ma — a former mayor of the capital city — is a refreshing breeze in Chinese politics. He is smart (educated at the best university in Taiwan before earning a law degree from Harvard), good-looking and charmingly modest.

At a dinner here in a downtown hotel, speaking mainly to professionals with strong ties to Taiwan, he outlined an approach to relations with China that deserves enthusiastic U.S. support.

The key to improving the special relationship between Beijing, Taipei and Washington, he said, is to maintain and practice "high-level trust" — adding that "mistrust will only breed more tension" and possible conflict. Beijing's leadership doesn't "like surprises" any more than the average American CEO.

Cross-strait conflict is something that the U.S. absolutely doesn't want, China itself probably doesn't want, and Taiwan certainly should not want.

Ma hasn't yet visited China as president, but when the invitation comes, he looks ready to handle it. He respects Beijing and its achievements, and wishes their Olympics every success. For its part, Beijing needs to respect the people of Taiwan, whose hard work and dedication have turned the little island into one of Asia's pre-eminent economic Tigers.

Taiwan, he said, must accept China's rise to the budding status of a superpower, though without humiliating kowtowing. That means its policy must have both "wisdom" and "flexibility" — rooted in basic principles of decency and humanity, while recognizing China's own special problems and special interests.

While Ma spoke, he translated his own Chinese into English. He was measured and casually precise.

A former U.S. diplomat still active in the Taiwan-U.S. relationship breathed a sigh of relief while listening to Ma, whom he clearly regarded as a godsend. The previous Taiwanese president — from the island's opposing pro-independence political party — had practically ground him and Washington down with his confrontational policy toward Beijing.

Pushing the envelope — or baiting Beijing — can work only if you don't fly over the edge while doing so. Ma would rather use an envelope to send a serious adult message than push it into a hazardous area merely for political effect. And his main message would be: Let us make peace, not war. Let us proceed as adult Chinese, with mutual admiration and trust.

In the language of the Olympics, the degree of difficulty for this trick is very high. But if Ma can pull it off, he will have gone far and gotten the gold.

Tom Plate, a full-time adjunct professor now on book-writing leave from UCLA, has been a frequent visitor of both mainland China and Taiwan over the past 12 years. © 2008 Tom Plate


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