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Beijing steps up pressure on Chen

Analysis: New phase in struggle

By Willy Lam for CNN

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Preparations near completion for Chen's inauguration Thursday.
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(CNN) -- The sword is out of its scabbard. Premier Wen Jiabao's revelation last week that Beijing is considering a National Reunification Law shows the Chinese leadership has entered a new and possibly violent phase in its decades-long struggle against Taiwanese independence.

And this hawkish line will likely stay despite widespread expectations that Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian will make a placatory speech Thursday to mark the beginning of his second term.

Chinese sources say it is known that legal and strategic experts under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA) began drafting a statute on reunification more than a year ago.

At least one version of the law being mooted would obligate the central government to "use whatever means to accomplish the holy task of national reunification" within a certain time frame, say, by 2008.

During the presidential campaign, Chen vowed to promulgate a new constitution -- which might codify Taiwan's full-fledged sovereign status -- in that fateful year.

A National Reunification Law, which could be endorsed by the Chinese legislature as early as the next northern spring, would be nothing less than an ultimatum for Taiwan's "splittists".

For example, an NRL would provide the legal basis for a much bigger budget for the People Liberation Army as well as larger-scale mobilization procedures.

And its enactment could signal the final stage of military preparations for a takeover of Taiwan.

That Beijing's Taiwan policy has taken a radical turn was confirmed by a senior LGTA adviser, Li Jiaquan.

Li told the official media on Monday Beijing was switching from a houfa zhiren posture ("winning through crafting an ingenious reaction to the enemy's ploys") to a "strike first" policy.

The LGTA, led by President Hu Jintao, had already made clear its total lack of trust in Chen.

Last week, spokesman for the cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), Li Weiyi, said given Chen's refusal to acknowledge the one-China principle, all his protestations of goodwill would be merely "an attempt to hoodwink international opinion".

The official International Herald Leader newspaper noted that "whatever Chen may say (on Thursday) no longer has any substantial meaning... It is clear his goal is to sever links with the mainland".

Largely bowing to American pressure, Chen is expected to repeat the "five nos policy" that he first enunciated four years ago.

This meant Taipei would not seek de jure independence through means including changing the name of the island or holding a referendum on sovereignty-related matters.

Recounting completed

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A recount of the 13 million votes cast in March was completed on Tuesday.

Chen's inauguration comes as controversy continues over his victory in the March presidential election.

A High Court recount of 13 million votes cast in the election found nearly 40,000 disputed ballots this week. Chen beat his opponent Lien Chan by less than 30,000 votes. A final court ruling could take another month.

A diplomatic source in Taipei said Chen extended an olive branch to Beijing in 2000 by letting CCP cadres have an advance peek at his first inauguration address.

"Last month, Chen offered to send a senior academic to Beijing to brief Taiwan-related cadres on the substance of his May 20 speech," the source said.

"That Beijing expressed a total lack of enthusiasm in seeing the emissary shows the extent to which cross-Straits relations have deteriorated".

Analysts said it was interesting that Premier Wen, deemed a moderate leader, should have chosen to flash the "reunification-through-legislation" card while in Britain last week.

A principal goal of his European tour was to lobby the European Union to lift its arms embargo on China -- and to persuade EU members to further isolate Taiwan.

Wen's statement in London -- that "for Chinese, national reunification is something more valuable than their own lives" -- was a not-so-subtle way of saying Beijing was ready to sustain immense sacrifices incurred by a "liberation war".

The TAO also said on Monday that "the Chinese people will pay any price to resolutely and thoroughly smash Taiwan-independence conspiracies".

Liao Fu-teh, a researcher at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, has surmised that Wen's stern talk was just an effort by the moderate Hu-Wen leadership to placate hawks in the CCP and the PLA.

In the past month, Washington has repeatedly urged Chen to refrain from further provoking Beijing. But the White House also rebuked China this week for threatening Taiwan and promised to fulfill its defensive obligations to the island.

In its calculations of whether -- and how -- to use military means to subjugate Taipei, however, Beijing has already factored in different forms of American intervention.

One conclusion the Hu-Wen leadership has drawn is that with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, there is only so much Washington could do to blunt a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The senior cadres seem convinced that given China's fast-rising economic, military and diplomatic clout, it can afford to risk limited American intervention in the Taiwan Strait theater.

The Party must also weigh the impact on its legitimacy if it is seen as being weak in the face of Chen's challenge.

-- Willy Lam is a China analyst who writes for CNN


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