As China Glares, Taiwan Gulps

US unclear on defending an old ally. Talk of succession agitates Beijing

To people living on this Far East island, the signs of trouble are clear.

First, they saw China, flexing new muscles of nationalism, firing test missiles near Taiwan's shores last year.

Then they heard American leaders utter conflicting or ambivalent statements about whether the United States would defend its former ally.

And as democracy grows in Taiwan, more and more politicians now hint at officially declaring independence, a provocative act in Beijing's eyes despite Taiwan's separation 48 years ago.

All this has led to an uneasy sense that an unwritten cease-fire between China and its "rebel province" - a cease-fire the US has helped enforce - is slowly breaking down, and that the civil war that once divided China might become its future.

"China still uses cold-war tactics even though the cold war is over," says a video editor in Taipei.

Since breaking diplomatic ties with Taipei to forge them with Beijing in 1979, Washington's main problem has been how to keep Taiwan's military strong enough to fend off an attack without provoking China. But lately, Chinese nationalism, Taiwan's democracy and moves to consider independence, and an apparent American waffling on Taiwan's defense are threatening to destroy the uneasy peace that has prevailed since the 1949 truce, say analysts in all three regions.

"There is a growing danger that the US and China are heading toward a clash over the Taiwan issue," says Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.

Taiwan, whose separation from the mainland is a legacy of the cold war, finds itself able to more openly talk about independence because of a widespread belief that the United States would come to its defense. During the Chinese missile tests in March 1996, the US sent two aircraft carriers into the area as a warning to Beijing.

Adding to China's worries over Taiwan is the expansion of a defense pact between Tokyo and Washington that would require Japan to provide support for military operations outside its borders.

"Some [Communist] party officials are worried that Washington's moves to strengthen its military pact with Tokyo are aimed at including Taiwan under the defense umbrella and containing China," says a Chinese official in Hong Kong.

"The US maintains a policy of 'strategic ambiguity' over how it would respond if China attacked Taiwan, and that extends to whether Japan would help defend Taiwan," says a Western official.

Washington's policy, which forces Beijing and Taipei into a risky guessing game over potential battle players and outcomes, was designed to prevent a cross-strait conflict, but it may be having the opposite effect.

"Some politicians here are saying 'don't worry about the China threat because the US and Japan will protect Taiwan,' " says Mr. Yang. "That's dangerous because it could build support for independence, which in turn would provoke China to attack."

Beijing has threatened to invade if Taiwan attempts to formally secede, and China's growing nationalism and defense budgets are making that threat increasingly real.

"If America wants to prevent a war, it should state clearly the US military will not back any calls for Taiwan independence," says Yan Xuetong of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations in Beijing.

The Chinese Army has staged mock war games and missile tests near Taiwan for the last two years to intimidate would-be "splittists," but "those scare tactics are backfiring," says Wang Jianxian, a leader of Taiwan's pro-reunification New Party. "The 1996 missile crisis caused more Taiwanese to demand the right to self-determination," and the island's new era of free speech and democracy is bringing the issue into the open, he says.

That trend is swelling the ranks of extremists on both sides - nationalists in the Chinese military who back recovering the island by force and activists in Taiwan who want nationhood at any price.

"Most countries recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, but do not want to see Beijing use force to retake the island," says Michael Swaine, an analyst at the California-based RAND think-tank. "The escalation of tensions threatens to spark a cross-strait arms race."

Some analysts say the race has already begun. As Taiwan buys American F-16 jet fighters, Patriot missiles, and other high-tech weapons, China is stepping up purchases of Russian arms. Scholars in Taiwan and the US say talks between each side of the cross-strait defense triangle should be held to stop the present momentum toward armed conflict.

Mr. Wang says negotiations between Beijing and Taipei that were suspended two years ago should be resumed immediately. "China should allow 'peace monitors' from Taiwan to tour the mainland's military facilities in exchange for stepped-up economic cooperation," he says.

And Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard University, says "The US should maintain its commitment to preserving Taiwan's security and democratic system ... but avoid provocative arms sales and policies that indicate support for Taiwan independence."

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