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Taiwan fears betrayal by Washington

IN WASHINGTON and Peking officials are burning the midnight oil putting the finishing touches to preparations for President Bill Clinton's historic visit to China later this month.

In Taipei, officials are equally busy calling everyone they know in the United States Congress, in the administration and anywhere else they can think of in an attempt to ensure that their oldest and least reliable ally does not sacrifice Taiwan's interests for the sake of improved Sino- American relations.

"We don't have formal diplomatic ties," said Chen Chien-jen, the chief government spokesman in Taiwan, "but everyone knows we have very good levels of communication with the United States administrations." How good? "Very senior," replied Mr Chen.

Based on these good relations, Taiwan's leaders are officially maintaining a cool, almost optimistic stance on the visit. Talking to a group of foreign correspondents in Taipei, the Prime Minister, Vincent Siew, said: "The US side has assured us that the visit will not in anyway sacrifice our interests." He even thinks it possible that President Clinton might help in facilitating a resumption of the stalled talks on the reunification of China and Taiwan.

Behind this optimism lies the knowledge that every time a US president has visited China, Taiwan's interests have suffered. The biggest setback was former president Richard Nixon's groundbreaking visit to Peking which led to the severing of diplomatic relations in 1979.

Since then the US, which promised to stand by Taiwan, has imposed arms supply embargoes, voted to exclude Taiwan from international organisations and broken off public dialogue with the island's leaders.

Yet, as John Chang, secretary general of the ruling Kuomintang party, insists, the US remains Taiwan's best friend. "In substance, practically all things have changed [since 1979] but in reality almost nothing has changed", he said.

But even he admits Taiwan is "very much concerned about President Clinton's visit". China has a shopping list of things it would like in relation to Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.

First, it would like the US to reaffirm its commitment to the "one China policy", which would mean keeping Taiwan in diplomatic isolation, and it may want US assistance in pushing Taiwan into reunification talks.

More worryingly, China is keen to see an American arms embargo on Taiwan. "The US is almost our sole arms supplier," said Shaw Yu-Ming, head of the government's international relations think-tank.

However, he thinks this is unlikely and explains why Taiwan is more relaxed about US-Sino relations. "We now realise," he said, "that stable and co- operative relations between the United States and China will not necessarily work against us."

The new thinking in Taiwan is that a stable China is good news because a country with difficulties, or worse, in turmoil, might be tempted into unpredictable military adventures across the Taiwan Strait.

Mr Siew stresses the need for a "pragmatic approach" to talks about reunification, making it clear that Taiwan will not make knee-jerk responses to sounding off from China.

In theory, both sides are working towards reunification but in practice they are always thinking of hundreds of reasons why it will not work. "Reunification is a long-term proposition," said Dr Shaw. "It will take decades to fulfil. There's no reason to hurry."

Mr Siew, who stresses he is ready for talks with mainland China at any time, also makes his timetable clear. "China will be unified under a system of prosperity, freedom and democracy", he said. "Then it will be naturally unified."

No one in Taiwan seriously believes that China is anywhere close to fulfilling these criteria. Meanwhile, although neither side is happy with the status quo, they can live with it. This, therefore, is not so much a peaceful as a case of pragmatic coexistence. Although there was a nasty stand- off in the Taiwan Strait almost three years ago, when China flexed its muscles to warn Taiwan not to try and get closer to the US, the governments in Peking and Taipei prefer to stalk around each other like leopards rather than attack like tigers.

The pragmatic coexistence could be in jeopardy if the US were to use the opportunity of the Clinton visit to further distance itself from Taiwan. This, say Taiwan government officials, might persuade the Chinese that the time has come to abandon the cautious route to reunification and embark on a more dangerous path.

The President's advisers are well aware of this danger but they also recognise that Mr Clinton cannot go to China empty handed. Most of the gestures China would like the Americans to make carry a high domestic political price tag. The sacrifice of Taiwan's interests might look like a cheaper option.