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Taiwan focus main game for Beijing

By CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Lam

China is concerned Chen might do something rash if he starts flagging in the polls.
China is concerned Chen might do something rash if he starts flagging in the polls.

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(CNN) -- What has the Taiwan Strait crisis to do with the stringent measures that authorities in Guangdong Province are taking to prevent the recurrence of SARS?

Surprisingly, quite a lot. In the run-up to Taiwan's presidential polls on March 20, President Hu Jintao has given orders to ministries as well as provinces to "take maintaining stability as the overriding task."

For example, the Ministries of Public Security and State Security have been told to keep a close watch on destabilizing agents ranging from jobless peasants to wild-cat trade unionists.

And the Propaganda Department is clamping a tight lid on expressions of dissent on the Internet.

"The Hu team wants to focus its energy on handling the Taiwan crisis," said a political source in Beijing.

"An outbreak of SARS in the order of spring last year will greatly impair Beijing's ability to make an appropriately tough response should something go badly wrong."

While Beijing has decided in principle not to do anything drastic until the elections, it is pulling out the stops to prevent Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian from holding a referendum on a mainland-related issue.

Last week, Chen, who is also chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), laid out the issues to be voted upon in a plebiscite due the same day as the presidential ballots.

One is whether Taiwanese want to strengthen defense capabilities if Beijing continues to aim about 500 missiles at the island.

The other is whether voters want Taipei and Beijing to open negotiations "to seek consensus between both sides and welfare for the people."

Chen has, owing to factors including American pressure, avoided issues directly relating to Taiwan's statehood.

However, it is well known that the Communist Party's Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA), which is headed by Hu, regards any plebiscite that reflects badly on either the mainland or the reunification ideal as unacceptable.

And a referendum that, in effect, asks Taiwan voters to authorize more funding for anti-missile batteries is seen as a significant step taken by Chen and the DPP toward separatism.

People's Daily commentator Chen Kongli charged last weekend that the planned referendum "targets the mainland and is a blatant provocation [of Beijing]."

And State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan said on Monday that "referendums, however packaged, will only push mainland-Taiwan relations to the brink of danger."

According to a source close to Beijing's Taiwan policymakers, the most that the Hu leadership can accept is a plebiscite on a purely domestic issue, like for example, about building power plants.

"Beijing is putting more pressure on Washington to force Chen to climb down on the referendum issue," said the source.

"It has informed Washington that 'an appropriately strong reaction' will be made in the wake of any 'defensive referendum' organized by the DPP."

Moreover, the source added, Beijing is keeping a close watch on whether Chen will do something "even more desperate" should signs emerge that he will lose the election to challenger Lien Chan, Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party.

As Beijing-based Taiwan expert Zhu Jun noted, Chinese authorities must raise their guard against "a final burst of irrationality" from Chen if his chances were faltering closer to election day.

Zhu noted that to preserve the separatists' power, "a desperate Chen might risk war with the mainland" by holding a plebiscite on Taiwan's independence or using other means to declare outright independence.

For the time being, Beijing is mainly employing three tactics against the separatist forces.

The first is playing the U.S. card against Chen.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said the Hu team was reasonably satisfied with President George W. Bush's recent response to Chinese request for help on the Taipei front.

Secondly, the LGTA is beefing up" united-front" work among mainland-based Taiwan businessmen, who have been reassured that Beijing's struggle against the DPP will not jeopardize their commercial prospects.

Cadres in Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office have also encouraged Taiwan businessmen and technicians to return home to vote in the March 20 polls.

Thirdly, and most significantly, the policy-making Central Military Commission is stepping up preparations for some form of tough military action that may be taken "to teach Chen a lesson."

Military sources in Beijing said heavy equipment and crack troops from different parts of China had been moved to the Nanjing Military Region, which is responsible for the Taiwan theater.

Vacation and other leaves for soldiers billeted along the coast as well as those serving in missiles brigades and other strategic units will be cancelled after Chinese New Year.

As tension keeps rising -- and nerves in both capitals are being stretched to breaking point -- the possibility of an accident or misunderstanding triggering a full-scale conflagration cannot be discounted.

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