Taiwan widens 'One China' split

A lame-duck president's words are fueling tensions between democratic island and the mainland.

China is preparing a "parry" to Taiwan's recent "thrust."

Breaking with a 50-year-old policy, last week Taiwan's president said that the two sides should deal with each other in "nation-to-nation, or at least as special state-to-state relations."

Taiwan's step, while just shy of a formal declaration of independence from China, could trigger a military clash between the mainland and what it considers a renegade province.

"China's military is very angry about [Taiwan President] Lee Teng-hui's abandonment of the one-China principle," says Yan Xuetong, a scholar at the Beijing-based China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. "The [Chinese] military is now assessing the situation and preparing a response."

A Chinese foreign ministry spokewoman said Tuesday that she was not aware whether the military planned any exercises following Taiwan's policy switch, but she added that China "has never committed itself to abandoning the use of force" to counter a declaration of independence by Taiwan. Yesterday, the official China Daily said Mr. Lee was "playing with fire" and gambling with the lives of Taiwan's 23 million residents by embarking on the path toward independence.

Lee heads the Nationalist Party, or Kuomingtang, which ruled China for two decades before being defeated in the 1949 Chinese civil war.

Although the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, off the mainland's east coast, a half-century ago, they continued to claim to represent all or part of a divided China, until Lee referred to the island as a separate state.

During the island's first free presidential election in 1996, when some candidates openly called for a final split from the mainland, China staged massive war games and fired live missiles off Taiwan's coast. The US sent two aircraft carriers into the region until China ended its mock-invasion exercises.

"China still does not have the capability to launch an armed invasion of Taiwan," says Chas Freeman, chairman of Projects International in Washington, D.C. "But it has a range of other military options that could be used to disrupt Taiwan's stock market, financial system, and overall confidence in the economy," adds Mr. Freeman, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

Freeman and Chinese scholars agree that tiny Taiwan would not stand a chance in any military confrontation with Beijing's 2.5-million-strong army unless Washington decided to enter a war against the world's most populous country.

Washington cut official ties with Taiwan when extending diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. And during a summit here last year, President Clinton repeated a pledge that the US will not support the island's independence.

That promise implies the US will not come to its aid if Taiwan issues a provocative declaration of independence.

If, on the other hand, China launched an unprovoked attack, Taiwan's supporters in Congress would clamor for US intervention to protect the democratic island from the world's last communist titan, Freeman says.

Over the last decade, Washington has sold Taiwan weapons ranging from F-16 jet fighters to Patriot missiles. President Lee recently asked to be included under a US-planned, star wars-like defense shield aimed at shooting down incoming enemy missiles.

The proposal to extend the Theater Missile Defense system to Taiwan is being interpreted in both Beijing and Taipei as growing American support for a second China, says scholar Yan.

"Lee Teng-hui's recent change in Taiwan's status is fueled in part by a growing confidence in US military protection for Taiwan's independence moves," he says.

Both Chinese and American scholars say Taiwan's leader probably timed his bombshell announcement to exploit a weakening of US-China ties following NATO's accidental attack on Beijing's embassy in Belgrade and allegations that Chinese spies have stolen a virtual treasurehouse of US nuclear weapons secrets.

"Lee Teng-hui is hoping that the mainland will limit its response to his provocation in order to prevent Sino-American ties from deteriorating further," says Zhang Yebai, head of the American studies department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

LEE is also calculating that "China-bashing in the US Congress," along with NATO's new policy of military intervention on humanitarian grounds, could translate into support for Taiwan's seccession, Yan says.

"Lee Teng-hui is saying, 'the US sent arms to support Kosovo's independence, so it will send arms and troops here to help Taiwan,' " says Yan.

"The US and China still have the chance to work together to prevent the current downturn in relations to spiral into a new cold war," Yan says.

Taiwan's election next year also looms. Since Lee will not run again, he may be attempting to create a legacy for the history books. With only 10 months left in office, Lee may want to institutionalize his moves toward independence to force his successor to continue the trend.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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