Like bad Chinese food, the Beijing-Taipei flap over the 2008 Olympics torch relay leaves a funky, disappointing aftertaste. It is not what one should expect in connection with an event that celebrates human capability, spirited competition, collective pride and unity.
Ironically, the torch relay - advertised by China as the most inclusive in history - has ignited a firestorm of divisiveness more than a year before it is scheduled to light up the Olympics' Opening Ceremony. Beijing wishes to run the torch through Taiwan as a continuation of its trek across parts of China, thus underscoring its claim to the island. Taipei seeks a route through third countries.
Whether this issue is resolved or not, the contentiousness between China and Taiwan - after nearly 60 years - has grown tiresome. No wonder some people throw their hands into the air and exclaim, "Why don't they simply duke it out, and let the winner take all of China?"
Chinese leaders certainly appear prepared - and at times eager - for confrontation. The threat of military force lingers just behind their lips every time Taiwanese officials toy with notions of independence. But surely Beijing's communist rulers know that an invasion of the island would fail, even if they managed to obliterate Taiwan. Most damaging, such action would deprive them of their only significant claim to legitimacy: Chinese economic strength.
If, because of war, China lost the ability to bring large numbers of have-nots to a higher standard of living each year, the Chinese people would stand up again - this time, with their pitchforks aimed directly at the leadership that supposedly liberated them in 1949. The Communist Party would die overnight.
Bear in mind that none of this discussion has considered the impact of China-Taiwan conflict and disruption on the regional and global economies. Clearly, this is not a civil spat that should be allowed to burn itself out.
So, what are the other options?
The tedious status quo, for one. Another would be for Taiwan to follow in the footsteps of Hong Kong and Macau, and end once and for all the artificial separation of China. Beijing would love that decision; indeed, it has dangled many incentives before Taipei to induce it to end the rift. Looking to the Hong Kong example, with a 50-year transitional agreement guaranteeing the district's way of life, many analysts see opportunities for Taiwan. In fact, Taipei has the leverage to demand much more from such an arrangement.
It has little reason to take that route, though. After all, Taiwan occupies the higher ground in terms of its democratic government and free-market economy. China is still traveling down a sometimes herky-jerky road to reform. The controlling impulses of its moribund ideology hamper political development. Democratic practices are evident only at the village level. In addition, excessive state influence lingers over China's economy, despite its power and numerous free-market elements.
Further, I do not buy the idea embraced by some that Taiwan might more effectively work to change China from the inside than it can in its current position.
I would prefer to see the opposite, that is, for China to join Taiwan, and have every expectation that reconciliation is possible later in this century. After all, Beijing and Taipei grow more interdependent with each passing year. Pressures for wider reform within China will not pause. Eventually, a "Big Taiwan" will rise on the mainland. At that point, when the two systems mirror one another, they will merge.
In the meantime, the key will be for sensible heads to prevail, particularly during moments of tension such as the spat over the Olympics. China and Taiwan must, at all costs, avoid sacrificing their vast mutual interests on the altar of their aging dispute.