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Paris, Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Much Posturing, but Little Truth, in China's Threats to Taiwan

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.
HONG KONG - China's policy paper threatening Taiwan with force if it fails to move in the direction of reunification has rightly caused concern. But beyond words, the reality is that China is no more united in its approach to the Taiwan issue than the U.S. Congress is on the conduct of relations with China, or the people of Taiwan are on how to deal with the mainland. In every case, statements are rooted in domestic politics. As a result, progress is difficult but lack of unanimity demands a degree of flexibility on all sides.

It would be much more worrying if there were not the diversity of views that enables pragmatic ambiguity to retain the upper hand. That may not be so apparent in the case of Beijing, but no amount of official statements can disguise the fact that opinions there vary widely about how much importance should be attached to early resolution of the Taiwan issue, or the risks that China should take.

The timing of the policy paper was determined by domestic policy considerations in Beijing and the election in Taiwan rather than by timetables in Washington. The prospect of passage of U.S. legislation opening the way to China's World Trade Organization membership has been set back. The likelihood of new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan has been increased.

A threat to WTO is also a threat to hopes that, according to the doctrine of Deng Xiapoing, closer economic integration will make reunification peaceful as well as inevitable. Membership in the WTO for China and Taiwan would likely lead quickly to direct cross-Strait transport links as well as to a new wave of investment by Taiwan in China.

Nor did Beijing have any particular need to worry about the Taiwan election. Unlike President Lee Teng-hui, the KMT candidate, Lien Chan, is cautious and does not wear his Taiwan identity on his sleeve. James Soong, the KMT renegade who is his rival is conspicuously in favor of better cross-Strait ties and the Democratic Progressive Party's candidate, Chen Shui-bian, has had to backpedal on independence to avoid frightening the voters. Apart from domestic issues of personalities and money politics, the aim of Taiwan's mainstream voters is to balance Taiwanese identity and de facto independence with improving opportunities to make money in China.

So why the policy paper? The lead-up to the Taiwan election happened to coincide with the National Peoples Congress, which provides opportunities for speechifying, and for quiet contemplation of the longer term political future of the 74-year-old President Jiang Zemin. Mr. Jiang does not have the authority, as Mr. Deng did, to give up his official posts and still pull all the strings. Is he, a master of insider manipulation, planning to stay on after the 16th Party Congress scheduled for 2002? A stronger commitment to eventual reunification but one that did not set off too many alarms in Washington or Taipei may fit Mr. Jiang's need for military and conservative party support.

At the same time, Beijing has laid down a new marker. It could over time make it more difficult for the U.S. simultaneously to espouse a ''One China'' policy, while acting as de facto guarantor of the two states status quo. It will hang over any president in Taipei less determined than Mr. Lee to pay some economic price for the status quo. This is Beijing's riposte to Mr. Lee's verbal first strike, the Two States pronouncement a year ago. That was driven by Mr. Lee's desire to advance Taiwan's agenda while he was still in office, knowing that his successor would, within the narrow limits the electorate allows, be more accommodating to Beijing.

Beyond the words and the maneuvering, self-interest still reigns. It is not in Taiwan's interest to provoke Beijing unduly, nor in U.S. interest to see the status quo upset by depriving Taiwan of defensive weapons. Least of all is it in China's interest to risk its economy and its international reputation, and the possibility of humiliation, on a fratricidal adventure against Taiwan. Mr. Jiang knows that better than anyone, but the truth is bad politics.