Courtesy Reuters

To the Editor:

Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui effectively explains why political, economic, and demographic changes in Taiwan over the past 20 years have irrevocably altered the equation across the Taiwan Strait ("Understanding Taiwan," November/December 1999). This has made it increasingly untenable for China and the United States to continue using an old fiction -- that Taiwan is not an independent entity -- as the linchpin of their approach to the issue. Lee advocates a new framework, stating that "perceptions underpinning policies involving Taiwan and Beijing must be more firmly grounded in reality than in ideological wishful thinking."

Unfortunately, the remedy to this problem is not as simple as Lee would have it, for several reasons.

First, China will not allow its strategic preferences to be ignored. Because Beijing has both leverage and the will to use it, it must be accommodated -- unless Taipei and its international supporters are prepared to risk a military confrontation.

Second, there are limits on what Taiwan can expect to do internationally. Lee cites Taiwan's "inherent right to actual and legitimate representation in international organizations," but this right is constrained by the fact that Taiwan is not recognized by most governments as an independent state or as an equal to mainland China. Taiwan's assertion that it is a state and deserves this status does not make it so.

Third, the U.S. government does not endorse Taiwan's claims of statehood and cannot alter its current policy without endangering its own relationship with Beijing -- which involves many issues other than Taiwan. For better or worse, Washington has made certain pledges to Beijing -- including its commitment to the "one China" principle -- regarding the limits of U.S. support to Taiwan. As distasteful as those commitments may now seem, Washington cannot unilaterally withdraw from them without risking serious consequences, such as war.

Nonetheless, even though the 20-year-old fiction at the center of the Taiwan issue has worn thin, it remains crucial to maintaining peace in the region. Neither that myth nor the "one China" principle can be discarded until something else is devised -- and agreed to by all parties -- to take its place.

For a new framework to be achieved, all three parties will have to be creative and flexible. Beijing should stop denying the obvious reality of Taiwan's separation from the mainland. It should tone down its saber-rattling and voice its commitment to eventual reunification on mutually agreeable terms. In short, Beijing could eliminate the reasons that Taipei is reluctant to resume substantive talks. For its part, Taipei should stop obscuring its own position on "one China." Instead, Taipei should reaffirm its commitment to "one China" as a present, not a future, concept -- something it was fully prepared to accept until very recently.

The challenge for Washington is to devise a new approach that neither denies Taiwan its due nor sacrifices U.S.-China relations. This will require it to recognize the limits on what Taiwan should be awarded. Both Beijing and Taipei must know that there can and should be limits on U.S. support of Taiwan, even in arms sales. At the same time, the United States should not eliminate the strategic ambiguity of its commitment to Taiwan's defense -- an ambiguity that, despite its flaws, still serves its purpose better than the alternatives. Washington can remind Beijing that it would, as the Taiwan Relations Act says, view any Chinese use of force against Taiwan as being "of grave concern to the United States."

In the meantime, the status quo remains the best-case scenario. All three parties -- and Lee in particular -- should avoid taking steps that challenge or undermine it.

Paul J. Heer

Visiting Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations