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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 March, 2004, 02:15 GMT
China looks and learns as Taiwan votes

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

After the failure of brazen threats and missile tests to swing the vote its way at previous Taiwanese elections, China has kept a low profile during the run-in to this week's presidential polls.

The new softly-softly approach is part of a more subtle, long-term strategy that involves making changes at home to try to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan's voters while using international diplomacy to warn them against seeking independence.

Taiwan election rally
China's long-term plan: Conquering Taiwanese hearts and minds
But leaders in Beijing are as keen as ever that the results of the Chinese diaspora's only fully democratic elections should suit the interests of the world's last major communist state.

They are deeply worried that President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party might win his neck-and-neck race with the Kuomintang's Lien Chan and further loosen Taiwan's ties with the mainland.

Threats backfire

Attempts to intimidate Taiwan's voters before elections in 1996 and 2000 succeeded only in reinforcing China's image as a bully and boosting the vote for those candidates it liked least.

"Beijing has drawn lessons from the past," said Jin Canrong, a professor in international relations at the People's University of China.

The Chinese Communist Party used to have the illusion that it could simply strike a deal with the Kuomintang

Dali Yang, University of Chicago
The new leaders who came to power in China just over a year ago have been reassessing policies towards Taiwan, he said.

"China's new leaders talk less but do more. They realise that whatever they do, there will be no immediate impact on Taiwan's internal politics. China has limited influence," he told BBC News Online.

One reason for Beijing's current caution is the sheer closeness of the latest presidential race in Taiwan, which coincides with a referendum on boosting defences against the 500 missiles China has aimed at the island.

"It is so close to call, it is hard to predict how China's remarks and actions would affect the outcome," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

"The Chinese Communist Party used to have the illusion that it could simply strike a deal with the Kuomintang and work something out... but China's elite now show a new maturity and understanding," he said.

China's current, more sophisticated tactics also include using its increased standing as the world's next likely superpower to persuade other countries that President Chen is the one endangering regional stability.

Beijing people speak out about Taiwan

Leaders of the United States, France, Japan and the Association of South East Asian Nations have all criticised the holding of a referendum as a threat to the status quo.

China gave Taiwan a further reminder of its growing diplomatic and military strength when it staged naval exercises with France off its northern port of Qingdao four days before the election.


The new, milder domestic line on Taiwan was evident during the annual meeting of the National People's Congress which ended in Beijing on Sunday.

Premier Wen Jiabao quoted poetry at a media conference in an apparent attempt to show he understood the Taiwanese people.

Neither he nor other senior figures restated the usual threats to use force to bring what China regards as a renegade province back to the fold.

All possibilities remain, including the use of force
Jin Canrong, People's University of China
An armed attack on Taiwan remains a very real possibility, however.

"The dominant policy at present is one of patience and restraint. But all possibilities remain, including the use of force," says Professor Jin.

In the run-up to the polls there have been large-scale troop movements in Fujian, the mainland province facing Taiwan, according to unconfirmed reports in the Hong Kong press.

If Chen Shui-bian wins the election, China will use various means - including military options - to force him to discard any plans to move towards independence and return to the old "One China" principle, say analysts.

Taiwan candidates Lien Chan and Chen Shui-bian
Both candidates have called on China not to interfere
A victory for Lien Shan - who supports the view that both sides are part of one greater nation - is expected to mean a substantial lessening of current tensions.

China would in that case try to resume political talks and improve commercial, postal and transport links by offering Taiwan preferential trading conditions similar to those it allows Hong Kong, according to outside observers.

Even as it aims its missiles at Taiwan, China has been using economic integration as its main weapon, successfully encouraging more than a million of Taiwan's people to settle on the mainland and large numbers of Taiwan companies to set up in business there.

But the past two elections have shown that the sense of separate identity felt by most Taiwanese is not necessarily affected by economic or other pragmatic interests.

Lien Chan, who has called on Beijing not to "do anything or say anything that will help Chen Shui-bian", is fearful of being seen as pro-China and even if he wins is by no means certain to bring the two sides closer.

"The only thing Beijing can do is wait until the people of Taiwan see that they will benefit from reunification in every aspect," according to Professor Jin, of the People's University in Beijing.

China must continue to make itself more attractive in the meantime by further boosting its economy and improving its international standing, he said.

Asked if this also meant China must change the way it governs its own people by bringing in political reform, he agreed this was the long-term implication.

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