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Taiwan polls 'could spark crisis'

CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy

• China: Taiwan threatens stability
• Factsheet:  China
United States
Chen Shui-Bian

TAIPEI, Taiwan (CNN) -- As campaigning for elections hits full swing across Taiwan the unfolding political drama is reverberating in capitals as far away as Beijing and Washington.

Diplomats, security experts and political analysts say the outcome of the March 20 elections could provoke a major international crisis, in the worst case leading to war between China and the United States.

"Taiwan is probably the most dangerous situation in East Asia at this point," Kenneth Lieberthal, a former U.S. National Security Council Member, says.

"This is really the only place in East Asia where I think there is a real possibility that we could see military conflict in the next couple of years if things go badly."

The roots of this explosive situation date back more than half a century when the Chinese Communists took power in Beijing but failed to capture Taiwan.

For years, both sides have lived with an uneasy status quo.

China claimed sovereignty over the island, just 100 miles (62 kilometers) from the mainland, but was willing to tolerate its separate existence as long as Taiwan did not move towards formal independence.

Now, though, President Chen Shui-bian, in a close re-election fight with opposition leader Lien Chan, appears to be doing just that.

While Lien has talked about reconciliation with Beijing, Chen has built his campaign around keeping Taiwan separate from China.

Chen has asked voters to endorse a referendum authorizing a military buildup to counter Beijing's forces and has called for a new constitution -- all steps China sees as leading to the independence it has vowed to use force to prevent.

Before the 1996 presidential election, Beijing fired missiles near Taiwan to deter pro-independence sentiment, prompting the Clinton administration to deploy aircraft carriers in the western Pacific.

Now the signs are that Beijing is even more frustrated.

"This one is more dangerous than the 1996 missile crisis," political analyst Andrew Yang told CNN.

"Because if China decided to use force it is not only exercises, it is not bluffing, it is not intimidation. It is a decision to use force to damage Taiwan, and make Taiwan to come to the negotiating table with China."

The Bush administration, which is committed to defending Taiwan, could find itself dragged into a conflict it desperately wants to avoid.

"If Chen Shui-bian is re-elected, and he continues with his policy of consolidating Taiwan's sovereignty and independence, it could lead to a confrontation with China that is totally unnecessary, and certainly not needed by the United States at this point," Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment says.

The election is on Saturday. And with so much at stake, opinion polls say the race is too close to call.

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