China's threats this week to stage an armed attack if Taiwan refuses to enter reunification talks are aimed not only at influencing the island's upcoming presidential poll, but also at ultimately ending future elections.
China's formula for rejoining the two sides of the Taiwan Strait would eliminate Taiwan's right to elect its own president, says Yan Xuetong, a Taiwan expert at a government think tank in Beijing.
In a white paper issued this week, the Chinese State Council stated that if Taiwan delays political negotiations "then the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force" to reunite the two sides.
The communist mainland and democratic Taiwan have been ruled separately since the 1949 civil war cooled down with an unwritten cease-fire. China abruptly broadened the conditions that could reignite the conflict. For years, Beijing said that only a declaration of independence by Taiwan or a foreign invasion of the island would lead to war. For the last half-century, Taiwan has had de facto autonomy, but China put the island on notice Monday that its murky international status could not continue indefinitely.
China repeated an offer for Taiwan to merge with the mainland under the "one-country, two-systems" formula, which guided Beijing's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau last year.
Under the "two systems" part of the proposal, Taiwan can retain a free market, says Mr. Yan, a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, which is affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of State Security. But, he adds, " 'One country' can have only one president, one vice president, and one foreign minister." Like Hong Kong, whose top official is appointed by Beijing, "Taiwan would be permitted to have a chief executive."
Beijing's new ultimatum, says Yan, "is timed with Taiwan's presidential elections, but is also aimed at the post-election period." The goal is to pressure Taiwan to come to the negotiating table. "Without political negotiations, the outcome is clear: war."
A Western official based in Beijing says that China's renewed belligerence will build support in Washington for the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. The House recently passed the bill, which would strengthen military ties with Taiwan, but the Senate has not yet voted. Until Beijing's new defense posture was unveiled, most people thought the bill would never become law, the Western official says.
"The Chinese have really shot themselves in the foot," says a diplomat here. "Votes in favor of protecting Taiwan are going to rise on Capitol Hill, and support for approving permanent NTR [normal trade relations] is going to drop."
Washington is also mulling over proposals to extend a planned missile-defense umbrella to cover Taiwan. The "theater missile defense" is still largely on the drawing boards.
China's main military threat is its missile build-up just opposite Taiwan. "The US provision of the theater missile-defense system to Taiwan would be a serious breach of the 1982 Sino-US joint communiqu," says a senior Chinese official with broad contacts in the Chinese military. In the 1982 pact, the US pledged to limit the quantity and technological sophistication of the arms it sold to Taiwan.
Supplying Taiwan with the antimissile system would also be an "encroachment on Chinese sovereignty - of course China knows how to respond," says the senior Chinese official.
In diplomatic parlance, an encroachment on sovereignty can be grounds for war, "but it depends on how serious the violation is," says scholar Yan. "China could be looking for a political settlement rather than a military solution" to the antimissile transfer, he adds.
The conflict began heating up last summer, when President Lee Teng-hui said Taiwan would only join talks with the mainland if the two sides recognized each other as separate states. That marked a sharp turn from his Nationalist Party's 50-year-long stance that both sides were part of one China, and would rejoin when Beijing embraced democracy.
China did not spell out that Taiwan would lose the right to elect its top leaders, but Yan says that outcome was definite. "The main reason the political elites in Taiwan do not want to enter reunification talks with the mainland is because they want to hold on to power," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society