China Says Taiwan Cannot Continue Delaying Reunion
February 22, 2000
By Erik Eckholm
BEIJING, Feb. 21 -- Less than one month before presidential elections in Taiwan, the Chinese government released the bluntest warning yet that it will not wait indefinitely for the island to reunite with the mainland. A prolonged lack of negotiations, in itself, China warned, could provoke a military attack.
The Chinese have long made it clear that any moves by Taiwan toward formal independence would lead to war. But today's government report on Taiwan adds -- for the first time in such a definitive policy statement -- that if Taiwan refuses indefinitely to pursue "the peaceful settlement of cross-straits reunification through negotiations, then the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force, to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The report does not provide timetable or deadline for negotiating progress. Still, "This is a signal that Beijing is getting impatient with the delays in the process of reunification," said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the China Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a private group in Taipei. "This is a warning to the people of Taiwan."
Taiwan officials said they would not comment until they had studied the document. As of tonight, the candidates in the March 18 presidential elections had not responded. The top contenders have favored talks of some sort, but not Beijing's vision of reunification.
The 11,000-word report, entitled "The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue," was released by the Taiwan affairs office and the information office of the state council, China's cabinet.
It elaborates on China's longstanding proposal for a negotiated return of Taiwan under a version of the "one country, two systems" formula, with even greater autonomy than was given to Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
"Provided that it is within the framework of one China, any question can be discussed," the report says, including "Taiwan's international space for economic, cultural and social activities compatible with its status, the political status of the Taiwan authorities and other questions."
That formula has been rejected as too confining by Taiwan's leaders and the three leading presidential candidates.
The dire warnings in the document were a reminder of what an emotional issue the reunification of Taiwan with the "motherland" is for Beijing, especially now that Hong Kong and Macao have returned to the fold. While there was no ultimatum or threat of immediate attack, they also underscore how explosive the confrontation across the Taiwan Strait is, potentially drawing the United States into war with China.
Today's report lambastes the United States for providing advanced weapons to Taiwan, which China says violates promises, and for proposals in Congress for a closer military relationship with the island, which it calls a "gross interference in China's internal affairs and a grave threat to China's security."
The United States officially supports the concept of "one China," but is also committed to providing Taiwan with the means to defend itself against attack.
In Washington, the State Department said there would be no official response until the report was studied "very carefully." But the harder line on Taiwan was likely to cause political problems for the Clinton administration as it faces a battle for Congressional approval of to get China's membership in the World Trade Organization approved in Congress. And the report's denunciation of the Congressional bill to upgrade military ties with Taiwan, which passed the House this month, could enhance support for the bill in the Senate.
The new Chinese report bitterly condemns Taiwan's president, Lee Tung-hui, accusing him of destroying previous talks with his assertion last summer that Taiwan would negotiate with China only on a "state-to-state" basis and his refusal to repeat the traditional homage to the concept of "one China."
After Mr. Lee's statement last summer, China broke off planned high-level meetings, charging that Mr. Lee was secretly scheming for independence even though he professes to support reunion at some distant point -- after the mainland, too, has become a democracy.
The report condemns Mr. Lee's suggestion of waiting for democracy as "an excuse for postponing and resisting reunification," since China has offered to allow different political systems to coexist under the banner of one China.
It is too early to tell what effect China's sharp words might have on Taiwan's election campaign. In 1996, before Taiwan's first direct elections for president, China was angered by Mr. Lee's defiant statements and fired missiles near Taiwan as a warning. The United States sent two aircraft carriers to the region.
Mr. Lee won election handily and seemed to gain popular appeal though his brinkmanship, but since then many Taiwanese who had toyed with the idea of declaring independence have had second thoughts.
China lacks the military power to invade Taiwan, experts say, and is no match for American forces should they be drawn into a confrontation. But China is steadily improving its navy; it recently received the first of two Russian-built guided-missile destroyers designed to penetrate American carrier group defenses. And it is building up forces of ballistic and cruise missiles. Both could be used to cripple Taiwan's economy by disrupting sea lanes.
So far, this year's election campaign has involved fewer military tensions, and in Taiwan the candidates have gone out of their way to avoid sounding provocative. Surveys show that a large majority of the Taiwan public, after enjoying years of prosperity and democracy, does not want a military confrontation with China.
All three major candidates, -- Vice President Lien Chan of the governing Nationalist Party; James Soong, a former Nationalist leader who is running as an independent, and Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party -- have made vague pledges to resume negotiations of some sort with China and to encourage more trade and business links. But none endorses China's formula for reunification, and it is unclear what the two sides might say in future to talks to give China a sense of progress toward unity.
Some political experts think that today's Chinese warning may be intended, in part, to scare voters away from Mr. Chen, whose party has long been associated with Taiwan independence. The founding charter of his party calls for a referendum on whether the island, still formally called the Republic of China, should be renamed the Republic of Taiwan.
Mr. Chen, seeking to broaden his electoral appeal, has declared that since Taiwan is already independent in practice, it does not need a formal declaration and that if elected, he would not pursue a referendum on the issue unless Taiwan came under attack. He has offered to discuss improving communications and economic ties, something the mainland badly wants.
The report released today unequivocally rejects the legitimacy of any referendum in Taiwan on independence, warning, "Any attempt to separate Taiwan from China through so-called referendum would only lead the Taiwan people to disaster."
In effect, today's warning puts the Taiwan candidates on notice that China does not intend to allow a repeat of Mr. Lee's performance, which it believes brought a halt to even the pretense of negotiations toward symbolic unification.