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China to get tough over Taiwan

CNN Senior China Analyst
Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian (R) with Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski
Alaska was Chen's last stop on a weeklong trip that took him to New York and Panama.

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(CNN) -- Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to issue a tough warning to Taiwan during his visit to the United States early next month.

The Chinese leader will also admonish his hosts to take a more clear-cut line on opposing Taiwan independence.

The premier's message will reflect anxious brainstorming sessions that Beijing's top organs on Taiwan policy have held the past few weeks following intriguing developments in Taipei as well as U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Chinese sources said the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA) had come to the realization the chances for President Chen Shui-bian winning re-election next March were much higher than they had anticipated just a couple of months ago.

The LGTA, headed by President Hu Jintao, had also blamed Washington for at least indirectly aiding Chen through failing to take an unambiguous stance against Taiwanese separatism.

Foremost among events deemed disturbing to Beijing is that polls have shown Chen, also head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), closing the gap with opposition presidential candidate, Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan.

A survey published last week by the Taipei-based China Times indicated that Chen had the support of 35 percent of voters, against 34 percent for Lien.

Until late summer, Lien, whose running mate is People's First Party Chairman James Soong, another veteran politician, had led Chen by a margin of around 10 percent.

Taipei analysts have attributed Chen's growing momentum to his increasingly bold pro-separatist statements, many of which he repeated while engaging in "transit diplomacy" in the U.S. earlier this month.

During his two-day stopover in New York on his way to Panama, Chen was for the first time allowed by Washington to make several public speeches.

And while in Panama City to observe the centenary of the nation's independence, the Taiwan supremo made news by shaking hands with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

And despite Powell's subsequent denial about "hidden agendas" about Taiwan, Beijing was furious that Chen's diplomatic gains had buttressed his re-election prospects.

Chen was on Tuesday in Alaska, the last stop on his weeklong trip.


A source close to Beijing's Taiwan policy-making establishment said the party leadership was mapping out a multi-pronged approach to grapple with the fast-developing crisis on the Taiwan Strait.

Given Chen's proposals such as changing the Taiwan Constitution around 2006 to reflect full-fledged statehood, his re-election could spell a big blow to Beijing's reunification efforts.

The CCP leadership, however, is constrained by the fact that a heavy-handed response such as holding war games along the Taiwan coast could have the opposite effect of provoking the island's famously defiant voters to cast their ballots for native son Chen.

Powell upset China by shaking hands with Taiwan's Chen in Panama.
Powell upset China by shaking hands with Taiwan's Chen in Panama.

"Until Chen's transit through New York, the majority of cadres involved with Taiwan policy believed that at least for the time being, it was sufficient to rely on Washington to rein Chen in," the source said.

"However, Beijing fears that the red-carpet treatment accorded Chen in New York means pro-Taiwan elements in Washington's defense establishment are flexing their muscle in U.S.-Taiwan policy."

The source added that in Taiwan-related remarks in the U.S., Premier Wen would warn that Chen's separatist game plan would threaten peace and prosperity not just in the Taiwan Strait area but across Asia.

Wen is also expected to appeal to Taiwan residents' vested interests by saying that a separatist road would engender economic stagnation and political instability on the island.

The premier, who has a well-earned reputation as a moderate cadre, would also dangle inducements such as a free-trade agreement with Taiwan along the lines of the mainland's closer economic partnership agreement with Hong Kong.

Autonomy offer

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing and Washington said Taiwan would dominate Wen's talks with President George W. Bush and his aides.

The analysts said the Chinese leader would emphasize that in return for China's contribution to the global anti-terrorist campaign -- particularly the solution of the North Korean nuclear crisis -- Beijing expected the White House to do more in blunting Chen's "creeping independence gambit."

The premier would also underscore Beijing's commitment to a Sino-U.S. "constructive cooperative relationship" by agreeing to import more American products in order to cut the $100 billion-odd trade surplus in China's favor.

At the same time, Beijing is stepping up "united front" tactics to woo Taiwan's opposition parties.

It is understood that the party leadership is trying to breathe new life into plans for a so-called "third KMT-CCP cooperation," a reference to joint efforts by the age-old rival parties to build a new -- and unified -- country.

In informal conversations with opposition politicians from Taipei, Beijing cadres have pledged that the Hu leadership is ready to grant unprecedented autonomous powers to a Taiwan that has re-embraced the motherland.

Apart from keeping its armed forces, the future Taiwan Special Administrative Region will be able to retain a big say on its relationship with foreign countries.

One proposal along this line is that under a formula dubbed "one embassy, two systems," future Chinese missions abroad will have well-staffed sections that serve Taiwanese interests.

Beijing has also made it clear it has hardly abandoned the so-called military option should a re-elected Chen press ahead with separatist tactics.

Talking to People's Liberation Army officers last week, Central Military Commission Chairman and former president Jiang Zemin reiterated the country's determination to "win IT-based wars."

Given that in recent international forums, leaders including Hu and Wen have played up China's pacifist intentions, the hi-tech battles Jiang referred to will only be fought in the name of national reunification.

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