A Tinderbox In Taiwan?

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Americans have come to regard North Korea as the greatest threat to U.S. security in Asia. But another challenging situation could be brewing within the borders of one of Washington's closest Asian allies. Taiwan is set to elect a President to a four-year term this weekend, and the outcome, security experts say, could have a profound effect on U.S. relations with China. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province but has in recent years been content with a murky status quo — one that permits de facto independence for Taiwan so long as it doesn't formally separate from China. But incumbent President Chen Shui-bian is thought to support formal independence. Four years ago, the former human-rights lawyer beat a divided opposition to take the presidency, but he has not enjoyed the degree of political support he needs to break further from China. This time he faces just one opponent — Lien Chan, who backs the status quo with China. The race is considered a dead heat, but if Chen wins, he will have a clearer mandate. This would put Washington in a tight spot. China, a nuclear power, has vowed to block independence by force if necessary, and the U.S. could not stand idly by if that happened. "The possibility of escalation over Taiwan," says James Mulvenon, an analyst at the Rand Corp., "is higher than over North Korea."

Chen has added fuel to this tinderbox by including a referendum with the election. He is asking voters to sanction a military buildup in response to China's deployment of missiles across the Taiwanese Strait. He has also said that if he wins, he will revise Taiwan's constitution, a step that Beijing fears could move Taiwan closer to formal independence. That is why Washington, seeking to cultivate relations with China, has taken a dim view of Chen's initiatives. President Bush warned him in December not to "make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo," implying that he should reconsider the referendum. Chen has ignored him. But China may have its own problems in responding to Chen. Any revisions of the Taiwanese constitution would probably coincide with the 2008 Olympics, which China is playing host to. Belligerent acts around that time would not help China's image, just when it is trying to present its best face to the world.