Paul Greenberg

For in Beijing's eyes, Taiwan is a breakaway province. Never mind that it was never part of Communist China. How do you break away from a regime you were never part of? Yes, Lewis Carroll would understand, but maybe only Lewis Carroll.

Whenever and wherever these two Chinas cross diplomatic paths, like a couple who live together without speaking to each other, at least not formally, an elaborate ritual has been devised.

Every international organization has to come up with its own mutually acceptable name for the country/government/place informally known as Taiwan - from the World Trade Organization to the World Health Organization, not to mention Firefighters International, the International Pigeon Racers organization, Video Games International, the Miss Universe contestŠ.

Each calls that island in the Pacific something different. It's Chinese Taipei at the Olympics and a Separate Custom Territory to the WTO. Mr. Wu's own resume identifies him as, hold your breath, Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States.

Again and again the Chinese on Taiwan have sought recognition by the United Nations under the name Taiwan - a purely ceremonial demand so long as the other, much bigger China sits on the Security Council, complete with veto power and the world's recognition.

Now the republic on Taiwan is planning a plebiscite on the question of whether the island should demand admission to the UN under the name Taiwan. This isn't diplomacy so much as a publicity stunt - and a provocation. What purpose such a plebiscite would serve eludes me. It must be the same purpose little boys pursue when they tease bulls.

Strategic ambiguity has its uses in diplomacy as well as in military affairs. It sure beats the heck out of war. There is no need for either regime to be our enemy. Clarity is. The trick is to come up with a name sufficiently ambiguous to be acceptable to both sides - Chinese Taipei, for example.

At another juncture when the clash between the two Chinas was heating up - in 1958, when the shells had begun to fly in a dispute over the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu - an American president named Eisenhower showed the world how to cool down a crisis.

The sophisticates tended to describe the old general as just a good-natured duffer with no sense of the finer points of diplomacy. And here he was being called on to answer some all too specific questions from the press: Would the United States enter the developing clash? How far was this administration prepared to go to defend Taiwan? Shouldn't it just abandon those little islands that Beijing claimed?

Ike's press secretary, James Hagerty, was worried. The regime on Taiwan was begging to be "unleashed" - like a feisty Pekinese barking at a huge mastiff. One wrong word at the press conference, Mr. Hagerty told his boss, and everything, namely the world, might blow up.

"Don't worry, Jim," Ike assured him. "I'll just go out there and confuse 'em." And he did. At length. The man was inarticulate like a fox. And the crisis passed.

Call it peace through confusion. Which is a much better result than war through clarity.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.