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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek

MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

Beijing Waits and Sees

Doing nothing pays off for China, for now
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE


Chris Stowers for Asiaweek
Beijing hopes not to challenge these guards on Taiwan's frontline islands

China's Premier Zhu Rongji was not subtle. "If the Taiwan independence forces come into power, it could trigger a war between the two sides of the strait," he warned, urging voters in the island's presidential polls to not make an impulsive decision they might later regret. Three days later, those voters chose Chen Shui-bian, whose party platform advocates an independent "Repub-lic of Taiwan." Beijing's next move? To wait and see. In fact, its options are limited. "They don't like the election, but what can they do?" asks a Western dip-lomat in Beijing. "Con-quer the island? Lob missiles? Anything less than a forceful attempt makes them look petty, and anything more forceful risks getting the U.S. involved."

The victory of its least-favored candidate puts China in a bit of a quandary. Chen's election challenges both Beijing's claim to Tai-wan and its political and military might. But high-pressure tactics could chill the mainland's economy by jeopardizing its chances of winning Permanent Normal Trading Relations from the United States and joining the World Trade Organization. Yet any slackening of China's reunification drive could anger powerful hawks within the leadership and the military, as well as a large portion of the nationalistic public.

 
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What Beijing policymakers do now may depend on how they interpret the results of Taiwan's election. Are they fo-cused more on Chen's victory, or on the 60% who voted for his two chief rivals? Are they more struck by Chen's record of advocating independence, or by his recent frantic backpedaling from that position? For now, Beijing has adopted a wait-and-see position. Zhou Zhihuai, a Taiwan specialist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, says that there will be an "observation period" through Chen's inauguration on May 20. But how long is Beijing willing to wait? Says Zhou: "This does not entirely depend on us, but on Chen."

Waiting has already yielded some fruit for Beijing. Chen has offered to open direct communications and trade links across the Taiwan Strait, something outgoing President Lee Teng-hui op-posed. "That is a step in the direction that Beijing should like," says Winston Lord, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asia. Taiwan's legislature, controlled by Lee's Kuomintang, has set the ball rolling by approving links between Taipei-held offshore islands and the mainland. Direct links with Taiwan itself would not only spur China's economy, it would bind the island more closely to China - which Beijing could portray as a step toward reunification. And Chen's Democratic Progressive Party is continuing to water down its independence line, even offering to support reunification if that is what the people of Taiwan want.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin has spurned Chen's offer to discuss the "one-China" principle, reiterating that acceptance of the concept was a prerequisite for any talks. But Beijing is likely to be wondering how to use economic ties and the DPP's repositioning to advance a peaceful resolution to its liking.

A military assault on Taiwan cannot be ruled out - at least in the long term. "China has already spoken," says Gao Heng, another Taiwan expert at CASS. "Jiang has no other choice." War would cripple the economy and could provoke U.S. intervention, but China will act regardless of the outcome if national unity is at stake, he says. But that is only if Taiwan moves decisively toward independence - an unlikely prospect. And most analysts believe that the People's Liberation Army would be hard-pressed to carry out an effective blockade at present, and will not be able to launch a full-scale attack for perhaps a decade.

There may be differences on the urgency felt by Beijing hardliners (who fear Taiwan may drift beyond reach) and moderates (who worry about economic damage from conflict). But there is no split on the necessity of eventual reunification. Beijing's restrained tone indicates that Jiang is siding with the moderates. But he is believed to want to be known as the leader who made solid progress toward regaining Taiwan. Moreover, faced with widespread discontent over corruption and unemployment, Beijing has made Taiwan a key issue with the public. "The leadership is using nationalism to rally support," says Lord. "Using Taiwan as part of that ap-peal to nationalism is a dangerous card."

Going forward, Beijing is likely to take a three-pronged approach, says a well-connected source. It will maintain military pressure on Taiwan, though it will not attack. It will press Chen to accept the "one-China" principle and to open political talks. And it will try to enlist Washington's help in that effort. To sweeten the deal, Beijing is prepared to go back to the mid-1990s idea of "one China, different interpretations" and be flexible about a reunification timetable. All of which has a whiff of dj vu about it. But that may be comforting after the recent uncertainties.

With reporting by Paul Mooney/Beijing and Samuel Gilston/Washington

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