Two Faces of One China

August 12, 1994

The main thing the two Chinas agree upon is that there is only one China. Meanwhile, the two Chinas have grown more intertwined. Taiwan entrepreneurs invest mightily in the mainland labor market, and their own government approves as long as the investments are laundered through Hong Kong. The two Chinas have practical problems in their mutual interest to solve, which they can best do by sitting down and talking.

This they just did. The result is hailed as a breakthrough of sorts. The first fruit of contacts that began in spring of 1993, it is a trio of low-level agreements to promote civil airline safety from hijacking, to repatriate illegal workers and to solve fishing disputes peaceably.

Part of the fiction of the two-China relationship holds that these talks were between two nongovernmental foundations, the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits in Beijing. Nonsense. It was two governments talking the same language.

The agreements hold that hijackers of planes from China to Taiwan will be sent back for trial, unless found to be political refugees, in which case they will be tried in Taiwan. Conviction in one China will suffice in the other. China will help pay costs of detaining and repatriating illegal immigrants on Taiwan. Both Chinas' patrol boats will mediate disputes between rival fishermen in disputed waters of the Taiwan Strait.

Don't look now, but this means that Beijing tacitly accepts legitimacy of Taiwan courts and naval patrols. What Beijing gains is, possibly, an end to the recent plague of hijackings. Both gain in law and order and in tourism.

There are bigger issues to resolve, but this was a start. It should help Taiwan, a spectacularly successful middle-sized nation, function in a world that pretends it does not exist while craving its exports, markets and investment capital.

President Clinton must soon decide whether to upgrade, for practical reasons, the visibility of Taiwan's embassy in Washington, which is called the "Coordination Council for North American Affairs." Now that Beijing is taking a more practical view, and now that the United States has granted most favored nation trading status to China, Beijing might not go ballistic if Mr. Clinton does.

Agreed, there is only one China. But it is good for both sides that they are getting on better. As long as there is only one China, each should be interested in the well-being of the other and in closer contact of their single people. And as long as China can proclaim that this is not recognition, and Taiwan that it is not reunification, everyone gains.

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