Poking the Paper Dragon

Will they, won't they?

Beijing's communist leaders long have threatened to take the island nation of Taiwan by force. Twice, in 1996 and 2000, the threat seemed real with a display of firepower. "The Chinese people will definitely safeguard the Motherland's reunification and national dignity with their own blood and lives," Prime Minister Zhu Rongji stated two years ago.

But, as US officials often ask, how strong is that threat? This week, the world caught a glimpse of how much China really means it.

Beijing's leaders barely thumped their chests following a statement by Taiwan President Chen Shi-bian that hinted at his support for a possible referendum that would declare the island officially independent.

Taiwan's unofficial independence matters less to China than having the island retain some intent toward reunification. A declaration of independence would shatter Beijing's dream, and send signals to Tibet and other parts of China that they, too, can move toward independence.

The Taiwan leader's statement reflects his resentment over China's success in pressuring the few nations still recognizing Taiwan to switch their embassies to Beijing. The tiny South Pacific nation of Naura did just that in July. Panama could be next. China is also trying to woo Chen's domestic opponents with business opportunities.

And Chen, who faces reelection in 2004, last year saw his political party consolidate power in Taiwan's 15-year-old democracy. His party long had advocated official independence while it was in the opposition. But while most Taiwanese oppose reunification, they also prefer not to rile the mainland by declaring independence.

Democracy in Taiwan will, however, more and more reflect the reality of independence. At the same time, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is primarily focused on equipping itself to eventually take Taiwan, or at least force it into submission.

Meanwhile, the communists plan a leadership shuffle later this year, and China's president will visit President Bush in October. Keeping China's economy on track is the party's primary goal, but the party must also keep the PLA happy.

The more the world can read China's tea leaves about Taiwan, the better it can head off a war.

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