The world's most peaceful trouble spot?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2005, 12:00am

North Korea's latest nuclear brinkmanship and the extreme volatility it generates in that corner of Asia underscore the relatively good prospects for rapprochement between mainland China and Taiwan. Contrary to the prevailing opinion on the improbability of Beijing and Taipei coming together consensually, I take a longer-term perspective.

The four worst confrontation zones in the world are widely seen to be: Israel and Palestine; India and Pakistan; North and South Korea; and mainland China and Taiwan. These are all rightly regarded as such because they each combine more than 50 years of entrenched militarised hostility with access to nuclear weapons.

However, the mainland and Taiwan really do not belong in this club any longer. First, they are not crucially estranged as a result of a wretched, multi-century religious divide. This is also the case for North and South Korea, but on the Korean Peninsula, the modern ideological gap remains vast - and the economic gap is wider still. Across the Taiwan Strait, the ideological gap is fading rather than intensifying, while the two economies continue a process of remarkably beneficial integration.

Certainly, the cross-strait rhetoric is often hostile. And it is true that many Taiwanese enjoy toying with the concept of independence. When we consider what separates the two, however, it is clear that many factors appear less dominant than before. And when we look at what is drawing them together, more serious question marks about the durability of this divorce arise.

Think of the almost immediate benefits which would flow from some serious level of reconciliation. Already the process of economic co-operation has enabled Taiwan to avoid a lengthy period of economic stagnation and has delivered still greater benefits to the mainland. Imagine what could be achieved once the military glowering ceased and the trade obstacles were removed. Next, consider the military might, perhaps using a Nato-type structure, of a genuinely combined Greater China. Consider, too, Deng Xiaoping's view that the mainland and Hong Kong may need about 50 years to fully converge. The key point is that he looked forward to convergence. In the Middle East, in Kashmir and on the Korean Peninsula, such a union is not even on the edge of the radar.

We have yet to consider what might be termed 'external factors' affecting any resolution of the Taiwan Strait quarrel.

The US and Japan feel the greatest unease about China's rapid rise towards becoming a real world economic and political power.

And indeed, the reality is that China and Taiwan have the potential, collectively, to place Greater China substantially higher up the world power ladder almost overnight. No other area of the world - let alone any other trouble spot - enjoys this sort of capability. Will this opportunity be seized soon? The answer is no, almost certainly. But the attractions of rapprochement are huge. Moreover, it is clear that mainland China's new leaders understand how to move beyond the political rigidities of the past when this makes good political - and strategic - sense.

Certainly, if one were asked which of our four areas may have ceased to be a trouble spot by the year 2050, Taiwan and the mainland would, logically, have to be placed at the top. There is no centuries-old religious divide, there is potential for possibly the largest economic mutual benefit story the world has ever seen and, overall, the longer-term tendency is towards more easing, rather than intensification, of political divisions.

Richard Cullen is a professor of business law at Monash University, Melbourne, and a research associate with Civic Exchange