Beijing-Taiwan Threats Are Election-Year Staple

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Pity the State Department's China desk at election time — particularly when both Taiwan and the U.S. are going to the polls and politicians on all three sides of the dispute start rattling their sabers. A powerful bloc of U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle, led by Delaware Republican William Roth and New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, warned the Clinton administration Wednesday that the trade pact facilitating China's entry into the World Trade Organization is in jeopardy following Beijing's renewed threats to invade Taiwan.

Sounds serious? Not really. Beijing traditionally raises the menace quotient in its rhetoric when Taiwanese politicians start talking independence, which is a political staple in electioneering there (the Taiwanese go to the polls on March 18). Of course the Taiwanese find plenty of congressional allies during U.S. election seasons, and bashing the incumbent over a China policy that's remained largely consistent from administration to administration since Nixon has become a tradition in campaigns for the White House — Clinton and Gore beat up on Bush the elder over Tiananmen Square; Bush the younger beats up on Clinton and Gore over technology transfers and spying. And all the while, over in Taiwan the main candidates square off over just how hard they'll push to remain outside of the mainland's orbit, driving Beijing apoplectic.

Despite the rhetorical frenzy, however, the election-season trading of insults is unlikely to disrupt business as usual. The One China policy fashioned by Nixon and Henry Kissinger has been sustained precisely because it's a kind of geopolitical don't-ask-don't-tell, which can mean different things to each side: Beijing interprets it as meaning the mainland ultimately rules Taiwan; the nationalist government in Taipei has long contented itself with the fiction that "One China" means it is the legitimate government of all of China. Beijing may issue threats and even move troops around, but it can't afford to risk the humiliation of losing a military standoff — and it's far from a foregone conclusion that China's military has the capacity to overrun or even intimidate Taiwan, particularly if the threat of imminent force compels the U.S. to signal support for Taipei. And despite its nationalist pride, Beijing well knows the potentially catastrophic economic consequences of confrontation with the West. Whatever they may wish for, Taiwan's leaders are fully aware of the extremely limited international support for independence — they're much better off goading China and then casting themselves the victim of Big Brother in Beijing than trying to upend the international One China consensus. And over on Capitol Hill, despite the threats and posturing, the Clinton administration remains confident of passing a trade deal strongly backed by the overwhelming majority of donors to both parties. Elections are a time for talking the talk, but walking the walk is too risky for everyone involved.