Even the smallest voices can be heard in the cacophony of Taiwan's politics today - all it takes is the embracing of a hot-button topic.
Last week, the head of the small but radical Taiwan Independence Party said that Taiwan should become the world's eighth declared nuclear power.
Cheng Pang-chen, who just joined Taiwan's March 2000 presidential race, says "Taiwan has always been a force for peace, but for the last decades it has faced a constant barrage of verbal attacks and military threats from a nuclear-armed Communist China," says Cheng. "Why can't we develop our own nuclear bombs?"
The answer, though, from the Chinese mainland is simple.
If Taiwan ever made a move toward acquiring nuclear weapons, "We would bomb all of their suspected nuclear facilities," says Yan Xuetong, a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-backed think tank in Beijing.
Taiwan and China have been locked in a battle of nerves since an unwritten and unsteady truce rather than a formal peace treaty ended the Chinese civil war in 1949. At that time, defeated Nationalist Party leaders and its army retreated to Taiwan.
The Nationalists' US-protected island sanctuary has since lost the diplomatic recognition of the United Nations and all but about two dozen countries, but the Independence Party's Cheng has a plan to reverse Taiwan's fading role on the world political stage.
"We should change our name to the Republic of Taiwan and reapply for admission to the UN," he says.
China has repeatedly stated that a declaration of independence or the development of a nuclear capability by Taiwan would be considered an act of war.
Taiwan originally launched a nuclear bomb research program in the 1970s, but Washington pressured the Nationalists to abandon it, taking its nuclear blueprints and documents. Andrew Yang, a defense analyst at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, says the US confiscated "all of Taiwan's weapons-grade uranium and parts of a research reactor."
It is unclear whether any remnants of the original nuclear program survive, but the Taiwan official says "It is not official government policy to research or develop nuclear weapons."
Yet the fact that Taiwan has not actually revived its nuclear research has not stopped Cheng's proposal from sparking an island-wide debate on the issue.
Radio and TV talk shows, newspapers, and Internet chat groups in Taiwan have all been flooded with discussions of the pros and cons of a secret nuclear program.
"No one wants to see a war with China or see Taiwan sanctioned as a rogue state by the world for developing weapons of mass destruction," says a young advertising executive in Taipei. "But everyone in Taiwan is wondering how we are going to prevent being absorbed by force into China," she adds.
Instead, the time required to develop atomic warheads and missiles would be seen by China as its last "window of opportunity" for a preemptive attack, a Taipei Times editorial said Monday.
Wang Chien-shien, former chairman of Taiwan's pro-reunification New Party, says, "Of course we dislike mainland China's using nuclear weapons to threaten us." But "If the Taiwan government adopted the Independence Party's plan to develop nuclear weapons, that would trigger an attack by the Chinese army."
Just days after Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui made his July 9 announcement that the island would engage in talks with the mainland only if it was recognized as a state rather than a renegade province, Beijing publicly said it had the technology to build neutron bombs.
Although Beijing's surprise revelation was not openly aimed at Taiwan, many residents here say the news was timed to intimidate the island. China has stepped up warnings that it could respond with force to any moves toward independence by Taiwan in recent weeks, but Western defense analysts say they have not detected any troop build ups on China's east coast, across the strait from Taiwan.
Ironically, the Taiwan Independence Party's latest attempt to throw down the gauntlet with Beijing could improve ties between China, Taiwan's long-standing enemy, and the US, the island's top arms supplier. "The US and China have moved closer and closer in cooperating on nuclear nonproliferation in the international arena," says Chinese scholar Yan.
Neither side wants to see a cross-strait nuclear arms race, he says. "China and the US are likely to take joint steps to pressure Taiwan not to restart its nuclear weapons program," he adds.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society