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The Thatcher treatment

China plots showdown with U.S. over Taiwan

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

Thatcher experiences the new China during 1984 negotiations.
Thatcher experiences the new China during 1984 negotiations.

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start quoteAmerica's two-faced policy that has encouraged and condoned 'Taiwan independence' forcesend quote
-- Xinhua news agency
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(CNN) -- Will Hu Jintao do to George W. Bush on Taiwan what Deng Xiaoping did to Margaret Thatcher on Hong Kong?

Hardline elements in Beijing who are getting increasingly alarmed over Taipei's "creeping independence" -- and Washington's apparent connivance at Taiwan separatism -- have proposed "doing a Thatcher" to the Americans.

Soon after Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong's fate began in the early 1980s, late patriarch Deng refused to entertain suggestions by then British Prime Minister Thatcher about alternate ways to prolong Britain's lease over the crown colony.

In a heated exchange in 1982, Deng simply told the Iron Lady that times had changed, China had become much stronger -- and there could be no nonsense over Hong Kong's return to the motherland's embrace at the stroke of midnight, June 30, 1997.

Thatcher was reportedly so taken aback that upon leaving, she slipped while going down the steps of Beijing's Great Hall of the People in front of the Chinese and international press.

Despite significant improvement in Sino-U.S. relations since the September 11, 2001 incident, Beijing is convinced that for purposes including "containing" China, there will always be strong American support for some form of Taiwan independence.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's successful transit through New York earlier this month, plus continued sales of sophisticated American arms to the island, has reinforced Beijing's perception that the U.S. is the crux of the Taiwan imbroglio.

The official Xinhua news agency last Friday quoted leading Chinese experts on Taiwan as claiming that "it is America's two-faced policy that has encouraged and condoned 'Taiwan independence' forces."

In other words, Chen's provocative gestures the past months, including proposals for a law on plebiscites and changing the Taiwan constitution to reflect full-fledged statehood, would not have been possible if the U.S. had followed a clear-cut one-China policy.

The corollary is that unless Beijing is prepared to stare down the U.S. on Taiwan -- as Deng Xiaoping did with the British over Hong Kong -- there will be no solution in sight even as Chen or his successors continue pushing the envelope toward independence.

The big question is: when will the Sino-U.S. showdown take place? Most likely not during Premier Wen Jiabao's American tour early next month.

This is despite the fact that Wen is preparing a series of harsh warnings for Taipei -- and Washington.

'Pay any price'

All smiles: Analysts say Hu will not have any qualms about laying down the law with the U.S. when it comes to Taiwan.
All smiles: Analysts say Hu will not have any qualms about laying down the law with the U.S. when it comes to Taiwan.

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Wen indicated that Beijing would "pay any price" to safeguard national unity, and that the U.S. "must be crystal clear" in opposing President Chen's separatist agenda.

A Beijing source familiar with China's Taiwan policy said given the gap between the military strength of China and that of the U.S. -- and China's dependence on the U.S. market -- a showdown over Taiwan was not yet imminent.

He pointed out, however, that the hardliners' belief that an ugly Sino-U.S. confrontation is inevitable is gaining ground among a growing number of moderate leaders.

"A showdown may be sooner than most people think because Beijing has begun taking a multi-pronged approach to prepare for the day when it will bluntly tell the U.S. to buzz off on the Taiwan issue," he said.

The following developments testify to Beijing's increasingly belligerent posture toward Taiwan -- and the U.S.

The first is the legal framework. Beijing has continued to resist the theory, first propounded during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, that globally shared principles such as the defense of democracy and humanitarianism override national boundaries.

In London last week, Bush cited one version of this principle to justify American action in Iraq.

While discussing the cross-Straits crisis, however, Tsinghua University judicial expert Li Zhaojie insisted that "according to international law, a country has the right to safeguard its territorial integrity according to international law" -- and that no other country can interfere with this prerogative.

On the diplomatic level, Chinese overseas embassies have been instructed to brief their host governments in the near future on Beijing's determination to use whatever means to combat Taiwan separatism.

In light of widespread reports that if re-elected next March, Chen may take advantage of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing to declare formal independence, the Chinese diplomats are expected to stress that fear of an international boycott of the Games would not hold China back.

As Beijing-based Taiwan expert Xu Bodong pointed out last week, Beijing "will not swallow the bitter fruit [of Taiwan independence] just because of the Olympics."

Diplomatic sources said Beijing had a special message for Asian countries who are U.S. allies: that they should not provide bases for US aircraft and naval vessels that may be used to "interfere" with China's crusade against the "splittists."

Yet potentially the most destabilizing action taken by Beijing concerns military means to prevent the U.S. from helping Taiwan in case the latter was attacked by the mainland.

The People's Liberation Army has been flexing its muscles in extraordinary moves the past weeks.

For example, a Ming-class submarine was dispatched to keep an eye on recent U.S.-Japan naval exercises in the Sea of Japan.

There are also reports that the PLA has added two more missile brigades to bases close to the Taiwan Strait -- and that the missiles are capable of hitting American aircraft carriers that might be dispatched to the region.

While such saber rattling would paradoxically boost Chen's re-election prospects, Beijing seems convinced it needs to make a tough gesture before it is too late.

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