Big China, little China: Haven't we been here before?

March 14, 1996|By Peter A. Jay FTC

HAVRE de GRACE -- With the Chinese firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait, Americans of a certain age are experiencing deja vu all over again.

Some of us can remember very well when there were supposed to be two Chinas. There was the big Red one on the mainland and the defiant little Nationalist one on the offshore island. Each had a repressive government headed by a tyrant whose hard-to-spell name American school children of that era were expected to know. The two regimes despised one another, and the implications for world peace were not encouraging.

Officially, the United States in those days didn't recognize the big China, a policy liberals thought misguided and impractical. Diplomacy should be hard-headed and not emotional, liberals said then. The big China had more people than any other country and the United States couldn't afford to pretend it didn't exist.

Conservatives described the unrecognized big China as having been ''lost.'' Few of them held out much hope that it might be found again, but they searched angrily for people to blame for losing such an important country. Meanwhile they supported the little China, located on the island of Taiwan.

Conservatives back then always called the mainland nation Red China. They persisted in calling its capital Peiping, the pre-revolutionary name. They made nasty jokes about Mao Tse-tung.

Liberals spoke respectfully of the People's Republic, and used the preferred new name for the capital, Peking. They made nasty jokes about Chiang Kai-shek.

When the big China started shelling two little islands claimed by the little China, for a while it was pretty scary. Two other Asian countries with the same last name had gone to war with each other just a few years before, and as a result a lot of Americans had died defending the one that was supposed to be our ally.

But eventually, after the United States strongly affirmed its support for the security of the little China, the crisis faded. And for a generation the islands of Quemoy and Matsu were remembered only by players of Trivial Pursuit and people who hoped to be on ''Jeopardy.''

The hostile confrontation in the Taiwan Strait taking place right now is very different, and not just because the forces of Beijing the capital has changed its name again are firing missiles instead of artillery.

For one thing, the American public isn't as jittery as it was the last time. It seems to be widely assumed that this is all for show and nothing bad will happen, at least to us. The Clinton administration has said appropriately tough things, and sent warships. But it's hard to tell if Beijing finds these actions credible.

Meanwhile, most of the foreign-policy experts are saying reassuringly that the actions of mainland China are only posturing, and that actual war is out of the question. And while we should certainly hope they're right, expert foreign-policy predictions are traditionally about as reliable as pre-season guesses about the NCAA Final Four.

It's comforting, perhaps, that Asia today is generally far more advanced, politically and economically, than it was in the days of the last confrontation across the Taiwan Strait. But of course it is more advanced militarily too, and both Chinas today are nuclear powers.

In another 20 years five of the world's six largest economies the other being the United States are expected to be in Asia. That's a plus, for healthy economies have a stake in peace and stability. Equally encouraging, Asian democracy is spreading, and democracies rarely if ever attack one another militarily.

Still a tyranny

But right now, although it has liberalized its society somewhat and has become a major American trading partner, the big China remains a tyranny and one with neo-colonial impulses. China hasn't controlled Taiwan since 1895, but now it wants it back. These ambitions are threatened by the growth of regional democracy, particularly the impending March 23 election in Taiwan.

You'd think that protecting real democracy is an even better reason for defending Taiwan today than was the defense of an anti-communist generalissimo four decades back.

But at a time when the leadership in Washington desperately needs the courage that public support provides, the current American attitude toward the Chinese faceoff seems remarkably blase. The Cold War is over, many of us seem to be saying, and we won it. Now we need to think about the budget, the homeless and the soot in the air. Let the Chinese work out their own problems.

Maybe, with the right encouragement, they will. Let's hope so. Since 1898, Americans have fought in Asia five times. The last time, in Vietnam, may or may not have been a mistake. The first two times, in the Philippines in 1898 and in China in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, were exercises in Western empire building which surely won't be repeated.

But the other two times, in 1941 and in 1950, the United States was caught by surprise, and paid heavily for it. Although Asia in 1996 has changed a lot since then, it's likely that the clearer we make our support for that March 23 election in Taiwan, the smaller the chance we'll be unpleasantly surprised once again.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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