Playing With Fire

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ANTHONY SPAETHThe relationship between Taiwan and China is often compared with that of David and Goliath. Sizewise the metaphor works, plus there's the seemingly eternal antagonism between a giant, totalitarian mainland that insists upon sovereignty over a prosperous, democratic island that functions, in nearly every way, as an independent state.
But David and Goliath are remembered because they battled--and that's the one thing that China and Taiwan have avoided for nearly 50 years. It's taken diplomatic gymnastics, a watchful world (particularly in Washington) and, on Taiwan's part, delicate rhetoric to keep the peace. But last week, Taiwan unilaterally appeared to abandon the rules of the game. President Lee Teng-hui told a German radio interviewer that Taiwan and China enjoyed a state-to-state relationship, or at least a special state-to-state relationship. What seemed at first like an inadvertent presidential slip quickly became official policy. Last week, Su Chi, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's government body responsible for cross-Strait relations said: It is an indisputable political and historical fact that the roc [Republic of China] and the PRC [People's Republic of China] are separate governments ruling respectively the Taiwan area and the mainland area. The pro-Lee Taipei Times editorialized: Now it is Taiwan that is being rational about its position in the world and almost everybody else who is living in fantasy.

It was astute analysis--if you look only at one half of the picture. Beijing wasted no time bringing the other half into clear focus. First came the standard dudgeon accusing Lee of being a splittist of the Motherland. Then came reports that President Jiang Zemin was meeting with the military to formulate his reply. (The last time Lee peeved Beijing, by going to the United States in 1995 to deliver a speech at his alma mater of Cornell University, China shot missiles into the waters around Taiwan.) On Thursday, in a supposedly separate context, the Chinese government announced that it had developed the neutron bomb--precisely the weapon one might choose to attack a crowded, industrialized place like Taiwan. (Neutron bombs kill humans while sparing buildings and other infrastructure.) We sternly warn Lee Teng-hui and the Taiwan authorities not to underestimate the Chinese government's firm determination to uphold the nation's sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity, a Foreign Ministry spokesman intoned in Beijing.

The U.S., taken by surprise by Lee's gambit, quickly reiterated its often-stated position. We do not support Taiwan independence, said State Department spokesman James Rubin. We do not support a two-China policy or a one-China/one-Taiwan policy. (Washington also warned China that it wouldn't accept force against the island.) Then it sent its de facto ambassador in Taiwan, Darryl Johnson, to meet with Lee, after which the Taiwan President said that Taipei's policy toward China has not changed--a significant gesture in Washington's view, but a comment that went largely unnoticed anywhere else.

A commonsense view might be that Lee was simply stating the current reality, and also taking his country one final step away from the delusions of the past. For most of Taiwan's postwar history, the island's rulers claimed to be the government in exile for all of China, in effect refusing to concede that in 1949 the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists. Time wore that pretense thin, and the position was formally abandoned in 1991. And yet, when Taiwan had claimed sovereignty over the mainland, the two warring sides were actually in agreement on the essential point: that China and Taiwan should be indivisible.

Since 1991, and especially after the deaths of many mainland-born leaders, Taiwan citizens increasingly have edged closer to accepting the idea of a formally declared separation from China. The economy is robust, nimble, high-tech. Native-born Taiwanese are at last running the island--Lee is the first such President. Decades of authoritarianism evolved virtually overnight into an open democracy. Several opposition parties have incorporated independence into their platforms, but Lee's ruling Kuomintang party has been more circumspect. Officially, it says that

Taiwan is a separate political entity, which like all states has its own name and flag, but that reunification with the mainland is the ultimate goal. A more recent caveat says that reunification can come when the two parts are equal in terms of political freedoms--in other words, at some impossibly remote time. That finesse has worked well for everyone, and China only gets exercised when someone in Taiwan intentionally steps over that invisible line. (Lee's trip to Cornell was viewed by Beijing as a quasi-presidential visit, thus the ire.) As for the U.S., its official view since 1979, when Jimmy Carter established formal relations with the mainland, is that reunification will come someday--but it won't spell out under which flag, that of the People's Republic or the Republic of China. That ambiguity has served us well, says a White House aide.

So why, amid such a delicate diplomatic minuet, did Lee decide to deliver a heavy foot-stomp, which precipitated the largest single-day drop in Taiwan's stock index in nearly a decade? At first it seemed like a gaffe, not unknown to a President who is garrulous, occasionally injudicious, though hardly the loose cannon that Beijing likes to portray. In fact, Lee apparently knew exactly what he was doing. His government recently concluded a lengthy multiagency study of relations with China. Taiwan's populace is generally cautious about the mainland question: public opinion polls tend to show that about 70% want the status quo maintained; less than 20% advocate independence, and even fewer want rapid reunification. But polls also show a growing sense of Taiwanese identity, as distinct from Chinese, and the common sentiment on the island is resentment toward Beijing for trying to whittle away Taiwan's already tiny international space. (Beijing reacted with standard fury when Taiwan recently secured diplomatic recognition from Papua New Guinea.)

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Lee was no doubt playing partly to his domestic audience with last week's policy shift: presidential elections are scheduled for next year. Although Lee can't run again, he's eager to help his party's candidate, almost certainly Vice President Lien Chan, who is sure to face a formidable challenge from former Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian and from James Soong, a Kuomintang breakaway.. Lee's remarks effectively coopt the platform of Chen, a member of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Lee is also apparently seeking to shore up his legacy by making an indelible stamp on Taiwan's future. According to this logic, by dismissing the One China notion and stressing the Republic of China's view of itself as a sovereign state, it will be impossible for China to absorb the island as a mere province or special autonomous region. He is intentionally playing the bad cop, trying to gain some more bargaining chips for Taiwan, says Lo Chi-Cheng, a political scientist at the Institute for National Policy Research in Taipei. It's risky, but sometimes you have to take risks to make gains. And few consider the policy shift reversible. Whoever becomes the next president will be bound by that policy, says Lo. It has created a new status quo.

That's true in Taiwan, perhaps, but the ripples from Lee's statement have already turned the waters around the island very choppy. Beijing's response has so far been only rhetorical, though broadsides have come from both the central government and the People's Liberation Army. Whether words transform into missile launches or some other hardware-heavy retaliation is a legitimate question. The army wants a hard-line response, says a Western analyst in Beijing. The only positive sign is that a scheduled October trip to Taipei by Wang Daohan, Beijing's point man on Taiwan issues, hasn't yet been canceled--despite the fact that Taiwan officials believe they have gained leverage in the next round of talks.

At the White House, the Clinton Administration says that its stern statements have calmed the immediate crisis, but no one is predicting a long peace. The train wreck is out there waiting to happen, says a White House aide. Agrees Richard Solomon, a former China hand at the State Department: We're always on the edge of being dragged into a military confrontation across the Strait. And with Sino-U.S. relations at a low, Washington's options in a crisis would be limited. When China shot missiles toward Taiwan in 1996, the U.S. responded by sending aircraft carriers to the area. These days, U.S.-China ties might not be able to withstand that kind of strain. Beijing's announcement of its neutron bomb seemed to be both a warning to Taiwan and a repudiation, of a curious sort, of congressional charges that China had stolen nuclear secrets from the U.S. It was accompanied by a 36-page report attempting to refute the Cox Commission allegations bearing the thumb-in-the-eye title: Facts Speak Louder Than Words and Lies Will Collapse on Themselves. Says the White House aide: There's no give in the U.S.-China relationship. As of last week, the delicate give-and-take in the Taiwan Strait had just about evaporated.

Reported by Don Shapiro/Taipei, Mia Turner/Beijing and Douglas Waller/Washington

CIVIL WAR or SEPARATE PEACE?
Taiwan's long journey toward independence

1949 Driven from mainland China by the Communists, the Nationalists set up a provisional government in Taiwan. In response, the communists (PRC) claim the island and vow to seize it

1972 Nixon visits China. The Shanghai Communique, embracing a One China policy, is issued

1979 President Carter recognizes PRC as China's legitimate government, with Taiwan a part of China. U.S. Congress counters with a law pledging on-going support of Taiwan

1988 Lee Teng-hui becomes Taiwan's first native-born President. He calls for the opening of more lines of communication with China

1991 President Lee announces an end to 43 years of emergency rule, implicitly recognizing the PRC government

1995 Lee makes an unofficial visit to the U.S. In response, China conducts missile tests near Taiwan

March 1999 China denounces a proposed U.S. anti-missile defense system that would include Taiwan, calling it an encroachment on China's sovereignty

July 1999 Lee asserts Taiwan's independence, saying China should deal with it state to state. China says it is ready to smash any attempts to separate the country

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