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Last Updated: Monday, 13 March 2006, 14:41 GMT
Taiwan storm set to get louder
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Taipei

 Taiwan's defence ministry spokesman Liou Chih-jein during a press conference at Taipei 07 March 2006, shows a map across the Strait
Tensions between the two sides are running high
It is 12 months since China passed a law authorising the use of force against Taiwan if the self-governing island moved towards formal independence.

On the face of it, it looks like nothing much has changed since then.

Both sides are still flinging insults at each other. China is still refusing to talk to Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian. The "status quo", as people call it, remains in place.

But conversations with the leading players and analysts who monitor their every move suggest an alternative conclusion - the situation has changed, and continues to evolve.

"Beijing now is taking a different approach to dealing with the Taiwan issue" argued Lo Chih-cheng from Taiwan's Institute for National Policy Research.

"They want to be the 'good cop'," he said. "They're asking Washington to be the 'bad cop'. They offer carrots to people here while pressuring the Americans to take a more hard-line approach to prevent any move towards independence."

One carrot was Beijing's invitation to leaders from Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) opposition to meet them in the Great Hall of the People, a few weeks after the anti-secession law was passed.

Senior KMT lawmaker Su Chi believes the contacts between his party and the mainland leaders have helped ease tensions in the Taiwan Strait since the anti-secession law was passed.

"We gave them the assurance that not everyone in Taiwan is pushing for independence so there's no need to panic," he said, "no need to attack or invade Taiwan. We have saved Taiwan's skin."

Unsurprisingly, the chairman of the government body tasked with handling cross-strait issues, the Mainland Affairs Council, sees it quite differently.

Joseph Wu said relations between the two sides have worsened in the last 12 months.

Our president is being treated probably worse than a terrorist or a criminal and that's not fair to Taiwan
Joseph Wu, Mainland Affairs Council chairman

He sees the meeting between opposition leaders and the Chinese leadership as an attempt to meddle in Taiwan's internal affairs.

And he cited China's continuing military build-up and continuing efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically as evidence of a tougher, not a softer, line from Beijing.

He used the strongest language to protest against the way the international community - almost all of whose members grant diplomatic recognition to China rather than Taiwan - treats the island's democratically elected leader.

"Our president is being treated probably worse than a terrorist or a criminal, and that's not fair to Taiwan. It adds to Taiwan's frustration," he said. "We think this is the problem."

Domestic woes

Beijing has been alarmed by Mr Chen's recent scrapping of a council on reunification with the mainland, the National Unification Council.

Mr Wu denied that the president was trying to draw attention away from his problems at home.

Mr Chen's poll ratings have plummeted and his Democratic Progressive Party has been damaged by corruption scandals and beaten badly in local elections.

Critics said his scrapping of the Council was part of an attempt to draw attention back to the threat posed by China, and edge Taiwan closer towards formal independence.

"(He's) trying to consolidate the pro-independent voters' support, and distract Taiwanese voters' attention from his party's corruption and poor performance in developing the economy," said Kaocheng Wang, director of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University.

Opposition party supporters march with a giant Taiwan Nationalist Party flag and shout slogans denouncing Chen's termination of a government committee responsible for unification, March 12, 2006.
Opposition supporters have denounced Mr Chen's tactics

KMT legislator Su Chi said the president's next tactic would be to try to make constitutional reform an issue in the months to come.

President Chen has already made clear his view that "re-engineering" of the document was needed.

The opposition fears this means rewriting the whole document.

The Mainland Affairs Council's Joseph Wu denied that. He pointed out that the current document was drawn up in China in 1947, and that certain sections were "simply out of date".

Mr Chen has pledged not to touch on the issues of sovereignty. But he has refused to be drawn on what changes he plans to propose.

Proposing changing the island's official name or flag, for example, would provoke a furious response from Beijing.

Even limited constitutional changes passed last year led to protests from China's leaders.

So why bother to risk antagonising them again?

Some analysts point out that if it provokes sabre-rattling by the Chinese, that could prove to be an electoral asset for the president's party - as it has done in the past.

Mr Chen personally does not have any more elections to fight - he has to stand down after finishing his two terms as president in 2008 - but of course he wants to do his best to ensure his party remains in power.

And like many politicians coming to the end of their term in office, he no doubt has an eye to his legacy, and wants his place in the history books.

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