Why China and Taiwan Fire Words, Not Missiles

The first official talks between China and Taiwan in three years have brought "each side a notch back from a potential future war," says a Western official.

Just two years ago, Beijing's Communist leaders were firing "test" missiles toward the "breakaway province" to keep it from officially declaring independence. The tense standoff, which forced the US to send two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait, helped bring a recognition that small steps toward reconciliation were better than reviving a decades-old civil war.

The new talks, which began last week, led to Taiwan negotiator Koo Chen-fu meeting yesterday with President Jiang Zemin, who also heads China's Communist Party. In a signal that both sides have a long way to go, Mr. Koo repeated Taiwan's stance that it won't even begin to talk about reunification with the mainland until the government in Beijing becomes democratic.

Although the Nationalist Party lost the Chinese mainland to Mao Zedong's Red Army during the civil war in 1949, it set up a rival government in Taiwan that has survived largely with American protection. In the 1980s, Beijing opened the door to the reunion of war-split families, along with burgeoning cultural contacts and investment by Taiwan businesses that is now estimated at more than $30 billion. Yet the two sides have never signed a peace treaty, and Beijing has threatened to invade if Taiwan issues a declaration of independence.

In July, President Clinton said the US did not support Taiwan's independence, a comment that reduced the official US ambiguity over whether it would defend Taiwan against China. Although the statement infuriated many in Taiwan and the US Congress, it "greatly reduced tensions in China-US ties and eased the sense of confrontation over Taiwan," says Zhang Yebai, a scholar who heads the American studies department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Although Beijing has proposed granting Taiwan a measure of autonomy if it reunifies with the Communist-run mainland, the only supporters of a Chinese union in Taiwan say the mainland must first abandon one-party rule.

A scholar at a government-run think tank in Beijing says "China's leaders know that their best hope of reunifying Taiwan and China ... will rely on China's transformation into a democracy." But he adds that "none of the top leaders here, or even their advisers, dare to publicly promote such a policy."

The Western official says, "if a Democratic Federation of Greater China is ever created, I can't see it coming into existence for decades and decades."

There are no signs that the "Communist Party is willing to give up its monopoly on power in order to recover Taiwan," says the Western diplomat. "And virtually no one in Taiwan wants to reunite with a Communist China," he adds.

Chinese scholars and officials say that Communist Party and army elders who fought in the civil war 50 years ago are the most fervent backers of a forcible reunion with Taiwan, but this revolutionary generation is gradually fading into history.

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