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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 09:39 GMT
Q&A: Taiwan's ties with China
Taiwan police on national day
China's relationship with Taiwan looks set for another rocky patch as the island prepares for presidential elections on 20 March. A move to stage a referendum on the same day, asking about Chinese missiles, has alarmed Beijing, which worries that Taiwan could use the mechanism to declare formal independence.

What's the row about?

The central issue is China's worry that Taiwan, which it regards as part of its territory, is moving by stealth towards formal independence.

China has repeatedly warned it will invade if Taiwan declares itself an independent state.

Although analysts are unsure whether that threat should still be taken seriously, the row between China and Taiwan is still one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia, especially since any conflict could quickly suck in the United States, Taiwan's chief military ally.

How did the split between Taiwan and mainland China come about?

The current differences between China and Taiwan can be traced back to 1949, when the communists defeated the nationalists in a civil war in China.

The beaten nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) party, fled to Taiwan, which Chinese governments long regarded as their own territory.

Since then, Beijing has vowed to retake the island, by force if necessary.

The KMT also believed in eventual reunification with the mainland, so while it was in power in Taiwan the main issue was when and how the island would be reunified with the mainland.

However, for many years there has been an independence movement in Taiwan.

While the island was under martial law, until 1987, this was a small movement. But with the founding of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986 it gained momentum.

In 2000, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian won the presidency, despite, and probably helped by, warnings from Beijing about moves towards independence.

Since then, the Chinese leadership has refused to deal with President Chen until he accepts that there is just one China, of which Taiwan is a part.

Mr Chen has not accepted this point and so relations between the two have remained frosty.

So what triggered the latest furore?

At first, President Chen, a lawyer by profession, proved more pragmatic than many expected, toning down his party's pro-independence position.

But from about mid-2002, he started making a number of suggestions which have antagonised China.

Some analysts in Taiwan see his moves as being timed to win support ahead of the presidential election.

First he said China and Taiwan were both countries on either side of the Taiwan Strait, or "one side, one country" (yi bian yi guo) - which seemed to flout Beijing's "one China" principle.

He also said that Taiwan's 23 million people should be able to hold referendums, a right which was enshrined in a referendum law passed in November 2003.

President Chen has said he wanted to stage a referendum to coincide with the presidential vote. Voters would be asked whether Taiwan should increase its defences, if China refused to redeploy hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan.

People would also be asked if they back opening negotiations with China.

President Chen's critics have called these moves disingenuous. They say his goal is to win re-election by stoking fears about China, and his real agenda is to progressively edge Taiwan towards de facto independence.

What about Taiwan's people, do they really want independence?

It seems most Taiwanese would like to ignore the question and keep the status quo.

Taiwan has developed into one of the world's leading economies and, in the political arena, there has been a relatively peaceful transition from martial law to democracy.

All this has been achieved without having to tackle the thorny issue of the island's status, and most Taiwanese do not want to rock the boat while things are going well.

Having said that, there are hardliners within the DPP who want President Chen to declare independence.

Others who do not want him to go that far have a growing pride in their country. The longer Taiwan and China remain separated, the more independent people will feel.

Will relations between China and Taiwan ever be normalised?

A great deal needs to happen before relations between China and Taiwan approach anything near normality.

The central issue is Taiwan's status: Is the island an independent country or will it eventually reunify with mainland China?

China's position has not budged an inch on this central issue since 1949 - it wants Taiwan back.

But with even pro-reunification supporters in Taiwan refusing to consider the possibility of reunification with a communist government in Beijing, there seems little hope of any great diplomatic change in the near future.


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