Taiwan's voters shrug off China's threat

China's latest formal - albeit vague - threat of force against Taiwan has angered the public. But experts say it won't sway voters to support reunification in the fledgling democracy's second free presidential elections on March 18.

"The 'white paper' won't have a big effect on Taiwan's presidential elections," says Su Chi, president of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which handles relations with China for the Taiwan government.

"China's main aim is to put pressure on Taiwan's new leader," Mr. Su said in his first public reaction to the white paper.

Political analysts and government officials dismissed the white paper as a two-pronged attempt to influence the island's elections and swipe Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's "state-to-state" policy off the negotiating table.

Mr. Lee's provocative announcement last year of this policy - which in effect declared Taiwan's de facto autonomy - angered China's leadership. The white paper is seen by some as Beijing's attempt to retake the political initiative in the cross-strait power struggle as Taiwanese go to the polls.

But so far, Taiwan's three presidential front-runners have avoided a debate over cross-strait policy.

Lien Chan of the ruling Kuomintang, Democratic People's Party (DPP), candidate Chen Shui-bian, and independent ex-KMT stalwart James Soong have steered clear of taking a firm stance on terms for reunification.

The DPP's Mr. Chen has also backtracked from the party's earlier pro-independence platform, saying he would not hold a public referendum on independence if elected, unless China attacked, and will not include Lee's "state-to-state" doctrine in the Constitution.

"The three main candidates are being careful as it's a very sensitive subject, and most Taiwanese are in favor of stronger links while at the same time retaining Taiwan's independence," says James Chang, an official with MAC.

A February survey showed that 3 in 4 Taiwanese adults are in favor of the "three links" - opening up direct transport, trade, and postal links - and 4 in 5 support signing a peace agreement to end the official state of war between China and Taiwan.

The survey, commissioned by the Institute of China Studies, also showed that 4 in 5 of Taiwanese over the age of 20 are for signing an investment guarantee with China, with only 1 in 10 opposed to such an agreement.

National Chengchi University professor Chao Chun-shan says the survey shows that the public's attitude toward the mainland is ahead of the government's "go slow, be patient" policy toward trade and investment in the mainland.

Economic ties between Taiwan and China have been growing inexorably, as Taiwanese companies continue to shift production to and invest in the mainland, despite recent political clashes.

MAC figures released on Jan. 27 show indirect trade with the mainland totaled $23.6 billion from January to November last year, up 7 percent on the previous period, with cumulative trade from 1987 to last November amounting to $186.8 billion.

Moreover, Taiwan is sure of American support in the face of escalating threats or attacks from China, MAC's Su said.

"Given the precondition that Taiwan does not declare independence, the US policy to respond militarily given the use of military means to resolve the problem by the mainland will remain unchanged," he said.

Tokyo officials said that the USS Kittyhawk left Yokohama Naval base yesterday, bound for Taiwan. But US Navy officials refused to comment on the aircraft carrier's destination.

On March 8th, 1996, China menaced Taiwan by firing unarmed missiles into the sea and conducting war games on the coast facing Taiwan in the run-up to the island's first direct presidential elections. Washington responded by sending two aircraft-carrier battle groups to show support for the fledgling democracy, in a move China denounced as provocative.

The Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong said the white paper would increase the resolve of Taiwanese to resist bullying by Beijing.

"Such threatening remarks not only make it difficult to bring the two sides to peaceful talks, but also worsen the stalemate between them," the paper said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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