Warships and Taiwan's delicate position
Bush today meets a top Chinese official seeking to block arms sales to Taipei.
Ninety miles from China, along Taiwan's northern coast, the Hsinchu Air Base is socked in by a sleepy spring drizzle. All is quiet. But should China ever attack Taiwan, the island's F-16 and Mirage interceptor jets will scramble from the grass-covered hangars set like bunkers in the ground.Skip to next paragraph
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Shieh Tzay-jen, a city employee who lives just outside the base, says China is getting stronger, repeating what's heard again and again in Taiwan: "If we say we want independence, China will attack us. So we just don't say anything. We need to first be safe. Then we can be independent."
As China's Vice Premier Qian Qichen meets President Bush today, much of what Mr. Qian is expected to convey centers around a possible sale to Taiwan of US-made, Aegis-radar- equipped destroyers.
"The Aegis is very important to China, otherwise the Chinese would not send its senior diplomat, uninvited, to Washington to stop it," says Taiwan's Maj. Gen. Tyson Fu. "On our side, we think it is reasonable to request the Aegis. We need it."
China fears the Aegis would not only give Taiwan a formidable new defense against Chinese ballistic missiles aimed at the island, but could potentially integrate Taiwan into the US-led military defense systems of East Asia, which include Japan and South Korea. Taiwan is a geostrategic center for shipping, commerce, and sits on an oil lane for Asia to the Middle East.
Beijing and Taipei are both looking down the road to the mid-term: Taipei hopes that it can engineer a separation from the mainland that is irreversible. Beijing is doing what it can to stop Taipei's permanent separation.
"I see Beijing at a crossroads," says Chong-pin Lin, vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan. "Their Army is developing pockets of excellence but they face social unrest. That makes me a long-term optimist, less of a short-term pessimist. But the midterm uncertainties loom large."
On the one side is a Taiwan that in the past decade has abandoned its claims on the Chinese mainland, become a high-tech giant, undergone a successful democratic transfer of power, talks about a distinctive "Taiwanese identity," and is hoping to outwait China's bid on its territory. Taiwanese see the Aegis as part defense, and part of an evolutionary move away from China - though no officials want to say so on the record.
On the other side is a rising China, 1.3 billion strong, developing into the superpower of Asia, that has recently regained the territories of Hong Kong and Macau, and whose leaders have increased the rhetoric about "reuniting" with Taiwan. The Aegis could delay China's designs on the island. When it is built in five to seven years, the Aegis could coordinate a wide array of land- and sea-based defenses to help knock down incoming ballistic missiles.
The drama is part of the still unresolved history dating back more than 50 years to the civil war, when the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces were driven from the mainland by the Communists.
Since that time, the two sides have developed completely apart. Today, the average annual income in Taiwan is more than $20,000, compared with $250 per year on the mainland.