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Walking China-Taiwan tightrope

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Too bad Taiwan is not the country with 1.3 billion people.

Yet since it has a population of 21 million to China's 1.3 billion, it is in the best interests of the United States and indeed the world to encourage a stable China. The question becomes, at what cost?That price must not be the abandonment of a democratic country - Taiwan - in exchange for a larger one based upon a communist foundation evolving toward democracy.

Yes, Taiwan is a thorn in ongoing relations between the United States and mainland China, but it represents what the United States hopes China someday will become - an open, democratic society.

China has made considerable progress toward democracy since the days of Mao Tse-tung. The recent trip by President Clinton provided evidence of that change - an example being the Chinese government allowing him to address groups without first seeing a text of his speech.

The major player in the region is China and will continue to be so. The relationship between the U.S., China and Taiwan shifted in a major way in 1971 when mainland China was admitted to the United Nations in Taiwan's place. Then, in 1979, the United States normalized relations with mainland China and severed them with Taiwan. Yet cooperation between the United States and Taiwan continues on an unofficial basis.

America's challenging task is to maintain good relations with both countries. Despite its relatively small population, Taiwan plays a significant economic role in the U.S. economy - it buys 1.6 times the amount of American goods as its much larger neighbor across the strait.

And while Clinton uttered the "three no's" China wanted to hear - no U.S. support for an independent Taiwan, no recognition for a separate Taiwan government and no support for Taiwan's entry into international organizations like the United Nations - Secretary of State Madeline Albright wisely stated that our relationship with Taiwan will not change. That includes continued U.S. arms sales.

Since President Nixon visited China in 1972, the United States has embarked on a "one China" policy. Albright reaffirmed that position Monday. But that does not mean support for China running roughshod over Taiwan and militarily forcing it back into the fold. In 1954 the United States signed an agreement to protect Taiwan in case of attack from the mainland.

What the one China policy does mean is reunion at some point is inevitable and momentum will not be turned as the spirit of freedom prevails. It happened with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and it needs to happen in an orderly and open fashion with mainland China and Taiwan. Until it does, the United States needs to walk the line of maintaining positive relationships with both.