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Relations with China move one step back

China's 'white paper' statements against Taiwan may damage trade relations with US.

By Justin BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2000



WASHINGTON

China hurt its chances to mend relations with the US this week when it released a policy statement that threatens military action against Taiwan.

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The meticulously planned, 11,000-word "white paper" has inflamed anti-China sentiment here just as lawmakers are considering measures that would help Washington redefine its role in the Pacific region.

At stake is US support for normalized trade relations with China, as well as the future of US arms sales to Taiwan, which the Chinese vehemently oppose. Also, the paper, entitled "The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue," comes just before elections in Taiwan, and could stir up greater sentiment for independence there.

"What China did this week was very counterproductive," Senate minority leader Tom Daschle told reporters here. "They need to take great care in their public pronouncements if they truly want to become part of the world community."

According to analysts, however, the statement may have been at least partially misinterpreted by US officials, who have overwhelmingly condemned it.

Much focus has been placed on an excerpt that says China will "be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force" if Taiwan does not expediently move towards talks of reunification with the mainland.

Little attention, however, has been given to other subtle parts of the document, which, for example, say the talks between Beijing and Taipei could take place on equal footing.

"The essence of the white paper lies in China's basic principle of trying to settle the reunification issue," says Yu Shuning, a Chinese embassy spokesman.

Furthermore, analysts say, the document is significant because it is only a document - as opposed to when China launched missiles toward Taiwan before the island held its last presidential election. At the time, in 1996, the US military responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the region.

"In some ways we should compliment the Chinese," says Bates Gill, an analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "Maybe in a way they're doing better."

Divided over diplomacy

Even before the release of the document, divisions ran deep in Washington over how diplomacy with China should be handled.

The US has a somewhat confusing policy, in which it says it supports one China, but at the same time treats Taiwan as if it were an independent ally.

China and Taiwan have had separate governments since 1949, when the Communists won a civil war and the Nationalist Party moved from the mainland to Taiwan. The major presidential candidates in Taipei have not gone as far as to say they want independence, but they have made it clear they do not want to unite with the mainland until China becomes democratic.

In Washington, some, like Mr. Gill and much of the Clinton administration, favor improving relations with Beijing, and letting Western influence - through trade and the Internet - trickle into the country and gradually lead to reform. The moderates have tried to isolate the white paper from issues such as trade agreements. It has been a priority of President Clinton to get China into the World Trade Organization.

Others, who have been dubbed the "Blue Team," feel that China is an imminent military threat, and that the US should view it as it viewed the Soviet Union during the cold war. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, refers to the Chinese as the "Red Chinese."

This group favors passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would increase military ties with Taiwan. The measure passed the House 341-70 but is likely to have difficulty getting Senate and presidential approval.

Pentagon officials, who are trying to improve military-to-military ties with Beijing, do not see China as a serious threat - other than from a long-range missile attack. The People's Liberation Army (PLA), officials say, lacks the ability to project power and probably could not even successfully invade Taiwan.

The PLA is currently most concerned that Taiwan could acquire a missile-defense system from the US that would protect them from Chinese sites along the Taiwan Straits. Taiwan has asked for the system but the US has not yet decided.

Contradictory lines

According to analysts, there are significant divisions within the Chinese government, which are reflected by the seemingly contradictory nature of the white paper. In the past year, these elements have disagreed over how to deal with corruption, the economy and the Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement.

The hard-line aspect of the paper was likely included to appease the military, says Col. Yang-Chen Wang, a Taiwanese military officer working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Yet the overall message of the document, says Mr. Wang, was aimed at the people of Taiwan, who will go to the polls March 18. "China is trying to influence the elections in Taiwan," so that voters and candidates will not support independence, says Wang.

But, he adds, the policy statement is likely to have just the opposite effect.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society