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Originally published Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Nationalism times two across the Taiwan Strait

Six years ago, after the United States dropped a bomb on China's embassy in Serbia and said it was a mistake, I was in China talking to...

Six years ago, after the United States dropped a bomb on China's embassy in Serbia and said it was a mistake, I was in China talking to university students. All of them said the U.S. government had done it on purpose. They offered several theories on what that purpose might have been, the most vehement of which that we had done it because of Taiwan. The United States, they thought, was sending a message to China: You're not getting Taiwan back.

The attitude of these students was, Oh, yes, we are.

The students were the most perfect bunch of nationalists I'd ever encountered. I was reminded of their zeal by recent demonstrations in China against Japanese textbooks. Imagine taking to the streets to fulminate about a foreign country's schoolbooks. Now there is nationalism.

Last week, I talked with another kind of nationalist: Parris Chang, a Taiwan official who was in Seattle on a private trip to attend the wedding of his daughter. Chang is deputy secretary general of their National Security Council. He is also ethnically Chinese and proud of his heritage. But he said of his fellow islanders, "We now consider ourselves Taiwanese."

The word "Taiwanese" has a forbidden ring. When I worked at Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, we never dared call the people on Taiwan "Taiwanese" because that was implying that Taiwan was not part of China. We used the politically correct term "Taiwan people," which seemed to imply that nationality was indeterminate.

Here was a man who spoke differently. "If Taiwan were to become part of China, we would be a small fish in a big pond," Chang said. "We don't want that."

This is the language of permanence. On the island that still calls itself the Republic of China, and has been careful not to declare "independence" — meaning permanent independence — Taiwan nationalism was once outside the pale. Until 2000, Taiwan was run by the Kuomintang, the historic party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Its name in English is the Nationalist Party, but it is a Chinese nationalist party.

The Kuomintang once ran all of China and still has ambitions in that regard. Its emblem is the white sun of the Republic of China flag. But since 2000, Taiwan's president has been Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, a party whose emblem is the island alone.

My guest was an intellectual and longtime activist of the Democratic Progressive Party. He referred to the Kuomintang as "colonizers" and their rule as "the Chiang Dynasty." Democracy really began in Taiwan, he said, when President Chen ended 55 years of Kuomintang rule in 2000.

All of this says to those mainland Chinese students: Forget about getting Taiwan back. We don't want to come back.

Whether Taiwan is part of China should really be none of America's business, but for half a century we have made it so by standing between them, preventing a fight. We have told both sides we are prepared to accept any peaceful deal they make. Clearly, this is a tacit admission that Taiwan independence is not essential to the United States. It also makes our military liability contingent on their politics.

If I were from Taiwan, I would not want my island to be absorbed by China. I would be attracted by the Democratic Progressives' platform. But I am from a country with different interests. Our guarantee to Taiwan is a trip-line for war. Our interest is that this never happens — that we keep both sides civil, that we nudge them toward agreement and that at some point we can extricate ourselves.

When?

If the goal is reunification, our liability can end when China gives up one-party authoritarianism. That will be a while yet, but optimists can believe in it. If the goal is independence, our liability can end when China gives up its claim to Taiwan — when, Chang told me, "the intellectuals in China tell their leaders, 'Forget about Taiwan.' "

I remember those students, and think: Not possible. Not in my lifetime. My sympathy is with Taiwan independence, but as an American, my interests are with ultimate reunification.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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