THERE HAS BEEN no end of heavy weather these last few days over the "One China" formula that Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's president, is supposed to have betrayed.
Taiwan is something new in the 4,000-year history of the Chinese people: a land of liberty where human rights are respected.
In its usual thuggish style, the Communist government in Beijing erupted in threats and abuse. It warned that "any plot to challenge the 'One-China' principle ... will fail," described Lee as "a criminal of the nation who will leave a stink for a thousand years," and bluntly warned that China now has the technology to build a neutron bomb. At the State Department, James Rubin was more diplomatic, though equally disapproving. "It is not helpful," he lectured, "for the Taiwanese authorities to make statements that make it harder to have dialogue." His colleague James Foley stressed that US policy "is unchanged: Our 'One China' policy is longstanding and certainly well known."
In truth, "One China" is not a policy at all. It is a falsehood, one to which the United States has genuflected for 50 years to accommodate dictators and strongmen. It is time to stand up to the dictators and start speaking the truth.
From 1949 -- the year of Mao's Communist victory in China -- until 1979 -- when Jimmy Carter extended diplomatic recognition to Beijing -- American foreign policy pretended that the rightful government of China was in Taipei. This fiction appealed to Taiwan's former authoritarian rulers, who periodically blustered about reconquering the mainland.
Since 1979, the United States has pretended the opposite: that the government in Beijing is somehow the government of Taiwan. This fiction appeals to the totalitarians who run the People's Republic of China, who insist that Taiwan is merely a "renegade" province.
As long as Beijing and Taipei both claimed to be the sole legitimate government of China, there was a case to be made for winking and going along with "One China." But going along with the pretense that Taiwan was part of China did not mean the United States agreed with it. "The government of the United States of America," declared the Recognition Communique signed by Jimmy Carter in 1978, "acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China." Note: the Chinese position, not the American position.
It is true that during his trip to China last year, President Clinton endorsed Beijing's hard line. "Our Taiwan policy," he said, "is that we don't support independence for Taiwan or 'two Chinas' or 'one Taiwan, one China.' " But his words were promptly rejected by Congress, which repudiated them by nearly unanimous votes in both houses.
In any case, presidential assertions and summit communiques do not have the force of law. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Public Law 96-8, does. That statute makes it a matter of US policy "to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations" between the United States and Taiwan. And it specifies that the United States will consider "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States."
In short, close US-Taiwan relations are mandated by law, and Taiwan's welfare is an explicit focus of American concern. When the statute was passed, Taiwan was still a police state. Today, it is a free and robust democracy. More than ever, Taiwan deserves our friendship, protection, and admiration.
Lee Teng-hui's words last week were a simple statement of reality. Inasmuch as China and Taiwan are separate, sovereign countries, he said in a radio interview, they should be dealing with each other on a "state-to-state" basis. This was neither a declaration of independence nor a rejection of reunification as an ultimate goal. It was a statesmanlike call for mutual acceptance -- and an announcement that the tired fable of "One China" has lost its diplomatic usefulness.
Foreign policy works best when it is grounded in reality. Fifty years after Mao's victory on the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek's flight to Taiwan, there is one China and one Taiwan. The former is a Communist dungeon, ruled by a junta that enslaves prisoners, persecutes Christians, arms vicious terror-states, forcibly sterilizes women, and sends people to prison for talking about freedom. The latter is a democracy, a prosperous island of free markets, free speech, and free elections.
Taiwan is something new in the 4,000-year history of the Chinese people: a land of liberty, where human rights are respected and governments rule at the pleasure of the governed. Its population is but a fraction of China's -- though at 22 million, Taiwan has more people than Australia and New Zealand combined -- but in that fraction is the hope of what China might one day become.
The United States behaves toward the Taiwanese with a shameful injustice. We blackball them at the United Nations and deny them normal diplomatic courtesies. We tiptoe around Taiwanese autonomy as if it were a dangerous explosive, but treat the brutal regime in Beijing with deference and respect.
On one side of the Taiwan Strait lies one of our most reliable democratic allies. On the other lies a violent, untrustworthy foe. It's time we started treating our friend as a friend. Junking "One China" would make an excellent start.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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