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banner Monday, 6 March, 2000, 15:09 GMT
Beijing's threats overshadow Taiwan poll
Taiwan's armed forces keep a wary eye on the mainland
By Graham Hutchings

A flurry of military threats from China has raised the stakes in Taiwan's second direct presidential elections.

The blunt message from Beijing has been that a vote on 18 March for Chen Shui-bian, the pro-independence opposition candidate, could mean war.

Beach propoganda
Beijing keeps up the war of words on a beach facing the Taiwan Straits
So, according to a policy document China issued last month, might victory for either of the other two main candidates should they delay talks on reunification indefinitely.

You must talk on our terms - reunification along lines similar to those that restored Chinese rule in Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau last December - or prepare to face the People's Liberation Army, Taipei is being told.

Confronted with this new outburst of Chinese sabre rattling, Taiwanese voters, along with the island's unofficial ally, the United States, must determine where Beijing's bluster stops and belligerence is likely to begin.

Cat and mouse

Like all cat and mouse games it is difficult to call. And like many, it could end in tears.

China's position on Taiwan at least has the benefit of clarity. It insists that the island is an inseparable part of the country, even though it was snatched in 1895 by Japan and run as a colony for the following half century.

Chiang Kai-shek and US Vice President Richard Nixon
During the 1950s massive US assistance helped Taiwan to survive
In 1945 it was restored to the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to the island when the Communists seized the mainland in 1949.

Chiang, and the Republic of China, survived because of American protection and Washington's determination to curb communism in East Asia.

However, during the 1970s, Washington and Beijing ended their estrangement and the US downgraded its relationship with Taiwan. Beijing (or the People's Republic of China) ousted Taipei (the Republic of China) from China's seat in the United Nations.

By the late 1980s it seemed the "two Chinas" - trading though not yet talking to each other - would settle their differences peaceably.

Twenty years later, despite even more trade and a certain amount of talking, there are few signs they are ready to so.

Instead the prospects of a "war of Chinese reunification" are growing as communist leaders in Beijing feel the island slipping beyond their grasp.

Changing times

Their instincts are well-founded: in the past 10 years Taiwan has changed beyond recognition.

Chen Shui-bian campaiging
Beijing sees opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian as a threat to security
The island's economic success is an old story, but its rapid democratisation, evident in the lively campaigning for the 18 March polls, has yet to be acknowledged properly by other democracies.

Its chief result is that Taiwanese Chinese, products of a history and culture quite different from that of the Mainland, have found their voice.

There is next to no evidence they favour reunification with China on the terms currently on offer.

But there is much to show that they believe talks between Taipei and Beijing should be conducted on the basis of "special state-to-state relations" - the controversial formula fashioned by outgoing President Lee Teng- hui.

Beijing regards this as independence by another name. It has cultivated a hatred of Lee to match its fear of Chen Shui-bian, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party candidate.

Winning scenario

Chinese leaders hope that the current Vice-President, Lien Chan, will emerge victorious and that the new president will quickly distance himself from his mentor.

Chinese press
Lots of jaw-jaw in Chinese press, but China could not guarantee military victory
Yet this would be the "least worst" rather than the "best" outcome for China.

Neither Lien nor Soong would risk the mandate they hope to win at the polls by agreeing to unification on Beijing's terms.

Beijing's bluster, in other words, can only achieve so much.

So what about belligerence?

Few things can be ruled out in Chinese politics, at least as practised in Beijing, but recourse to arms would be risky.

At present the People's Liberation Army lacks the muscle to invade Taiwan, would invite US participation if it tried, and might well ruin the prosperous economy of the southeastern provinces by its actions.

Worse, it might be rebuffed by the well-equipped Taiwan military - a dénouement almost certain to result in the overthrow of the government in Beijing.

For all these reasons, China is likely to stick to bluster - for the moment.

Meanwhile it is rapidly buying and building the weapons needed to tip the balance of power in the Taiwan Straits more permanently in its favour.

Graham Hutchings, formerly China Correspondent of London's Daily Telegraph, writes on Chinese affairs. His book, Modern China: A Companion to a Rising Power will be published by Penguin this year.
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See also:

24 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: The trouble with Taiwan
10 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
China bares fangs at Taiwan
20 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
Understanding Taiwan's tactics
20 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
China's military might
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