Peace Through Confusion

Posted: Nov 26, 2007 12:01 AM
Peace Through Confusion

Let us begin with this one fact, for it may be the only thing that is clear in all the diplomatic fog that has settled over this Chinese puzzle:

Joseph Wu is an envoy.

I know that much. He walks, he talks, he looks like a diplomat. It takes me a good half-hour of asking dumb questions for him to show even the slightest trace of exasperation. Yes, he's definitely a diplomat. He speaks at least a couple of languages. (I can vouch for the quality of his English, though not his Chinese.)

To top it off, after our cordial interview during the afternoon, Mr. Wu was the guest of honor at a reception and birthday party for him at the Embassy Suites here in Little Rock. And it was held in The Envoy Room! That cinches it. The man is definitely an envoy, a credentialed representative of the government of...

Well, that's where the confusion sets in. He's an envoy, all right, but an envoy from where? From a country with no formally, officially, universally recognized name. It's now known as Taiwan/Taipei/Republic of China or whatever you prefer to call that large land mass with a population of 23 million between the Chinese mainland and the Philippines.

The regime on the mainland is called the People's Republic of China, which is another conundrum. For that regime is certainly not the people's, nor a republic, nor does it encompass all Chinese. Its name is triply contrary to fact, as in the Holy Roman Empire of medieval times.

Words are wonderfully elastic things, extending even beyond the bounds of belief, yet wars have been fought over them. Thankfully, only a verbal war is now under way between the two Chinas - although at last count the "people's republic" on the mainland had something like a thousand missiles pointed at Taiwan. But for now the two sides are throwing only communiques at each other. Every rally produces a counter-rally, every gesture its opposite but equally heated response.

The object of diplomacy should be to keep this conflict only verbal, which is why the thicker the word-fog, the better. Words become fighting words when they get specific. The longer this dispute remains one over terminology, the longer it can be cushioned by words, words, words - like a grenade swaddled in layers of soft asbestos.

At this point, it would take a Lewis Carroll to keep up with the Alice in Wonderland vocabulary in which this dispute is conducted. Consider: Not long ago the Communist regime on the mainland (which is now deep into capitalism) passed an anti-secession ordinance against Taiwan/Taipei/Republic of China/Insert Your Own Name of Choice Here.

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 contestÅ .

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.