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China Turns the Screws

Review & Outlook

February 23, 2000

When Taiwan held its first presidential election in 1996, China fired missiles into the surrounding waters to convince voters not to support Lee Teng-hui. That backfired. The island rallied around Mr. Lee and the ruling Kuomintang party. This time China is rhetorically threatening war if Taiwan doesn't come to the negotiating table. It won't work this time either. On Monday the State Council issued a policy paper stating China will "be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force," if Taiwan refuses, "sine die, the peaceful settlement of cross-Straits reunification through negotiations." The document's use of an obscure Latin term meaning "without a date" has sent China scholars scrambling to figure out the nuances of this ultimatum. The message is clear enough: Beijing sees time is not on its side, and is moving closer to setting a deadline for reunification.

Previously the mainland threatened military attack only if Taiwan made concrete steps toward a declaration of independence. Now just defending the status quo isn't enough for Beijing. Partly that may reflect jockeying within the Communist Party. But it also reflects the fact that Taiwan's main opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian has found a way to rally support for statehood without making voters so nervous about war with China that they run to the KMT. Surprisingly, he's doing it by yelling, "Long live independence."

The Taiwanese voter is a bundle of contradictions: He isn't keen on reunification, but doesn't want war just for the sake of a declaration of independence, yet he wants to be proud of the island nation, too. Thus, Mr. Chen ditched formal independence in favor of a kind of enhanced status quo. Why campaign for independence when it would imply Taiwan doesn't enjoy that status now? So let's just flaunt what we've already got. But no need to fear the People's Liberation Army, because a Chen administration would seek to strengthen commercial ties with the mainland. Predictably, Beijing is seething over the politician's cleverness.

This was all made possible by Beijing's bete noire, President Lee Teng-hui. His parting gift to Taiwan was the "two states" theory of cross-Strait relations, which says that both sides must acknowledge the reality that China is currently divided before anything can be done to bring the country together. By consolidating a sense of Taiwanese identity, he made it possible for the next president to bargain with the mainland from a position of strength.

The biggest danger now is that China will seek to play the Washington card again to force Taiwan to the negotiating table. The 1996 missile firings may have failed in the short term, but at least they have succeeded in persuading the Clinton Administration to send officials to Taipei to encourage President Lee to tone down the rhetoric. That in turn may have encouraged China's leaders to think that if they keep up the threats the U.S. will enforce their ultimatums.

In order to dispel such notions, Washington must do more than just promise to never push Taiwan to negotiate under a threat of force. It must acknowledge that Taiwan is a mature democracy now, and any compromise on the issue of sovereignty will have to come from the Taiwanese people.

On his trip to China in 1998, President Clinton seemed to foreclose the possibility of Taiwanese sovereignty when he endorsed China's "three noes" doctrine.

It's time to step back again and acknowledge that reunification will be possible only with the support of the Taiwanese voters. The current election campaign is showing that it is extremely unlikely while Beijing is holding a gun to their heads.