Int'l Herald Tribune

China to Taiwan: Begin Unity Talks or Face Attack

Paris, Tuesday, February 22, 2000

By John Pomfret The Washington Post Service

BEIJING - With Taiwan's presidential elections just a month away, China on Monday threatened to attack the island if its leaders indefinitely delay negotiations on the reunification of the two regions, separated since China's civil war in 1949.

The startling ultimatum, issued in an official white paper from the State Council, the highest organ of China's government, significantly broadened Beijing's threat to invade the island. It had previously said it would storm Taiwan only if the island declared independence from China or if it was occupied by a foreign power.

But at the same time, the white paper also appeared to agree to one of Taiwan's main conditions for political talks with Beijing - that Taiwan be treated as an equal and not as a ''local government.''

The paper also intimated that China would be justified in attacking Taiwan if the United States continued arms sales to the democratizing island or if Taiwan revised its constitution to modify its support of the ''one China'' theory. It also rejected outright a key second condition put forth by the Taiwanese government for talks to begin - the introduction of political reform in China.

China's ultimatum was timed to affect the outcome of Taiwan's presidential elections. Specifically it was aimed at hurting Chen Shui-bian, the candidate from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, who in the past has advocated independence for Taiwan.

Mr. Chen is running neck-and-neck with two other main candidates, the current vice president, Lien Chan, and an independent, James Soong, who both back closer ties to China. Beijing is believed to support Lien Chan in the March 18 vote to replace President Lee Teng-hui.

''Facts prove that a serious crisis still exists in the situation of the Taiwan Strait,'' the white paper said, although it did not mention the upcoming election.

The paper came at a time when most analysts maintain that relations between China and Taiwan are set to improve following a tense period last summer when Mr. Lee announced he was rejecting the ''one China'' policy that has been the bedrock of ties between the two regions since relations began to thaw in the late 1980s. Mr. Lee said instead that Taiwan and China were separate countries and should establish ''special state-to-state relations,'' infuriating Beijing.

''The good news is that this is better than something military,'' said Michael Oxsenberg, an specialist on Chinese security affairs at Stanford University. ''The bad news is that the Chinese felt compelled to do anything at all when it looked liked things were heading their way.''

After the return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese control, the white paper is a sign of Beijing's growing impatience with the pace of reunification and indicates specifically that China's military has succeeded in increasing its influence over President Jiang Zemin in the formation of a policy on Taiwan. The military is known to be more willing to embrace a violent solution to the issue and is engaged in a multibillion-dollar modernization drive that is focused almost completely on ''liberating Taiwan.''

But the ultimatum also underscores Beijing's failure to devise less aggressive policies designed to entice Taipei into building on the positive side of the relationship. Indirect trade between the two sides has reached $160 billion, Taiwan companies have invested $44 billion in China, 200,000 people from Taiwan live in mainland China and 16 million more have traveled to China since relations began thawing since 1987.

Regardless, the language in the white paper was a throwback to 1996, the year of the last Taiwan presidential elections, when Beijing staged a series of war games in the Taiwan Strait weeks before Taiwan voted in its first direct presidential election. Those war games prompted Washington to dispatch two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region and contributed to a sweeping victory by Mr. Lee - the opposite of what China wanted.

Throughout the document, China villified Mr. Lee, who Beijing considers to be the mastermind of Taiwan's independence movement. It accused him of plotting to confuse Taiwan residents about their identity and wrecking the foundation for a peaceful reunification. Mr. Lee, according to the white paper, is a separatist, a ''saboteur,'' a ''stumbling block'' and a ''troublemaker.''

But it is significant, Mr. Oxsenberg said, that it is words, not missiles, that are flying across the Taiwan Strait.

The statement appeared to a tactical maneuver, he added. ''The two sides are circling around each other to see about resumption of dialogue after the election,'' he said. ''They are trying to set the terms of the debate.''

The white paper is part of a series of signs recently that China is pursuing a two-track policy on Taiwan. On one hand, the white paper said Beijing was willing to negotiate with Taipei ''on an equal footing'' and to discuss any topic as long as Taiwan accepts that there is only one China. On the other, China is slowly squeezing Taiwan's security by modernizing its military and is now moving the goal posts on the conditions that would spark an attack by the People's Liberation Army.

''If the Taiwan authorities refuse the peaceful settlement of cross-Strait reunification through negotiations, then the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force,'' the paper said at one point.

Much like the war games of 1996, China's threat will most probably not play well in Taiwan. All of the three main candidates have said that Taiwan is a sovereign state separate from Beijing. They all have generally rejected the concept of ''one China'' - even though that idea is enshrined in the Taiwan Constitution.

Mr. Lien, in an interview, would not say that he backed the concept of ''one China.'' Mr. Chen, in another interview, said he was willing to discuss the definition of ''one China'' as long as he did not have to accept it as a principle.