Campaign raises the heat across the Taiwan Strait

Posted in China , Asia | 25-Nov-03 | Author: Amit Chanda| Source: International Herald Tribune

Drawing red lines

LONDON - China's deputy minister for Taiwan affairs, Wang Zaixi, launched a threatening volley of rhetoric across the strait last week, warning President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan that if he continues to "challenge the mainland and the One China principle, the use of force may become unavoidable."

Speaking five months before a presidential election in Taiwan that Chen, the pro-independence candidate, is looking increasingly likely to win, Wang cautioned "separatist" elements that China would use military means to suppress their "conspiracy to promote formal independence."

Wang's threat - the most hard-line Chinese official statement since Taiwan's last presidential election, in 2000 - is surprising because, until recently, China's official statements on Taiwan were rather muted and restrained. In early September, for example, the Taiwan Affairs Office had no reaction when thousands of pro-independence demonstrators marched in support of Chen's plans to change the island's official name from Republic of China to Taiwan.

Part of the reason China been so quiet about Taiwan up until now is that the pro-reunification candidates Lien Chan of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party had been enjoying a substantial lead over Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party in public opinion polls.

Rather than try to fix something that wasn't broken, China opted to sit back and watch Chen fail on his own. Recently, however, opinion surveys indicate that the president has clambered back into the lead, albeit by a very narrow margin. Fearful of the consequences of allowing Chen's popularity to grow, China has chosen this moment to clearly state its objections.

More worrying from the Chinese perspective is that the pro-unification stalwarts Chan and Soong have been forced to reverse their parties' policy agendas in order to bolster their sagging polling numbers.

Having previously pledged to oppose constitutional provisions allowing for public referenda on matters of national policy, the Kuomintang and People First Party, recognizing the potential electoral benefits of stealing Chen's limelight, have carried out a policy U-turn. Although they remain committed to eventual reunification with the mainland, their support for the idea of referendums presents a major dilemma for China, which fears that a future referendum on independence could backfire and result in a declaration of statehood by Taiwan.

China's warning last week thus indicates the drawing of a red line; a warning directed at Taiwan, but also at the United States against interfering in the March 2004 presidential elections on Taiwan.

When Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China visits Washington early next month, Taiwan will be high on his agenda as the mainland attempts to enlist the United States for its effort to unplug support for President Chen's pro-independence agenda. This is partly because the United States is also firmly committed - at least on paper - to the "one-China" principle, but also because Beijing blames the United States for tacitly encouraging Chen and bolstering his electoral prospects.

The hospitality shown President Chen during his brief stop in New York late last month, for example, infuriated China, which views such visits as conferring legitimacy.

Closer to home, pronouncements from Therese Shaheen, the chairwoman of the American Institute in Taiwan - the de facto U.S. embassy - have been a constant source of aggravation in China. Shaheen does not speak for the U.S. government, but she has denied U.S. opposition to independence for Taiwan, and has said that Taiwan has a "guardian angel" in President George W. Bush.

With election campaigning heating up also in the United States, senior U.S. officials will probably reiterate America's commitment to the "One China" principle and advise Wen to ignore Therese Shaheen.

If President Chen's poll numbers continue to climb, however, Chinese rhetoric will grow increasingly belligerent, possibly culminating in another round of saber-rattling military exercises.

The Bush administration will then be faced with the decision of whether or not to do as President Bill Clinton did in 1995 and 1996 and send in the U.S. Navy to draw its own line in the Taiwan Strait.

The writer is Asia research analyst at the World Markets Research Center in London.