Hongkong:  The furore over Lee Teng-hui's claim for a State to State relationship between  Taiwan and Beijing is partly ssemantic. But it is also about  an awkward reality which Beijing would do well to accept if its wishes to douse Taiwanese independence sentiments. 

State. Nation. Country. People. Even in English, the
differences between the words are often misunderstood, or
missed altogether. In Chinese, the concepts are even more
easily confused.

But clarity is essential if Chinese people are not at some
stage to go to war ostensibly over what are differences in
interpretations of the meanings of words. Make no mistake. If
Beijing genuinely believes that a Taipei assertion that it is
a separate state amounts to a declaration of independence,
then according to its own logic it had a right to use force to
prevent secession. That this may not be a "right" acknoweldged
by others is of limited defence for people in Taiwan.

In this latest flare-up, there has never been any doubt that
the war would be of words only. Anything further would
seriously damage China's larger interests and would be ruled
out even if the provocation was greater than has actually been
the case.

Semantics makes it easy to suggest, as Beijing does so often,
that belief in One China necessarily means commitment to one
Chinese state. In reality the one Chinese country (or nation,
though that is sometimes used in a wider ethnic context) has
been divided into two states for the past fifty years. In a
legalistic sense, it is not even true that Taiwan "broke away"
from the rest. In fact it was the other way around. Like it or
not, the RoC is an older continuous historical entity. The
Taipei government was slow to abandon the pretence of being
the legitimate government of all China. But Beijing still
adheres to the pretence.

Only its size and influence, not logic, enable Beijing to
force on most of the rest of the world the notion that there
can be only one Chinese state while itself recognising the
reality of two Korean states within one nation. The Taipei
government has always insisted on being treated as an equal,
not as a province. So ever since it abandoned its pretensions
to the mainland and particularly since it sought UN
membership, it has in practice been promoting the Two States
concept. Lee's latest statement merely rubbed that in.

Beijing may think that two states is a stepping stone to
Taiwanese independence, which it sees as Lee's covert goal as
well as the DPP's open one. But its intransigence on the two
states issue is probably promoting Taiwan independence as the
alternative to absorption. Under the Two states formula, both
would be China. But Taiwanese independence would mean the
creation of a nation state as separate as Vietnam is from
China, Bangladesh from Pakistan, Germany from Austria or
Norway from Sweden.

Nothing would kill the Taiwan independence idea quicker than
Beijing's recognition that China is two states seeking
eventual reunification. But instead of accepting reality it is
trying to suggest that Two States=Taiwan independence. This
may be good short term politics at home, but it is a bizarre
route to peaceful reunification.

President Lee Teng-hui clearly intended to be a little
provocative in pushing the envelope of statehood, but even he
has been surprised at the venom of Beijing's response to what
in reality was little more than semantics. Indeed, Beijing may
have had its own reasons for making more of Mr Lee's remarks
than may have been warranted. Post the Belgrade embassy
bombing, China is in a prickly mood. Some see America's black
hand in all kinds of places. Others may have wanted to create
a sense of crisis which would help in WTO and other
negotiations with Washington. A crisis atmosphere might induce
the US to apply pressure on Lee to desist from his efforts to
create  diplomatic space for Taiwan by insisting that it be
treated by the international community as an entity of full
standing, not the "renegade province" of Beijing propaganda.

As for Lee, he seems to have been intent on giving Taiwan one
more push into the international arena before he steps down
next year. Whoever succeeds him  will probably be less
forthright in promoting Taiwan's identity. Even a president
who said the same things would be unlikely to attract quite
the Beijing vitriol reserved for Lee. The new tension may also
help the languishing presidential prospects of vice-president
Lien Chan. KMT renegade James Soong, who has now declared
himself as an indepedent, has been well ahead in the opinion
polls. But Soong's popularity rests on his outgoing
personality and past high profile as governor of Taiwan
province -- not on his backing for closer cross straits
relations. So this flare-up may do his cause no good. At the
same time it may help the vice-president wins votes from the
pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. In any event,
it shifts voter attention away from domestic issues on which
the KMT is vulnerable.

Beijing may have felt it could not ignore Lee's remarks. But
over-reaction, as in 1996, strengthens Taiwan's resolve not to
be bullied and to retain its de facto separate statehood,
whatever the terminology. Taiwan is not Hongkong. Geography
and history have given Taiwan the reality of One Country Two
States not One Country Two Systems. 




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