Taiwan waves olive branches, but China's still talking tough

Yesterday, China rejected President Chen's overture to 'one China' stance.

Each time Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian, tries to navigate a course toward peace talks with the Chinese mainland, he seems to hit cold-war icebergs pushed in the way by Beijing's Communist rulers.

On Wednesday, President Chen made the latest in a series of overtures telling China he wanted to reactivate a 1992 framework pact that opened the first round of negotiations between Beijing and democratic Taiwan.

But the Chinese government is apparently intent on maintaining a freeze across the Taiwan Strait, at least for the foreseeable future.

"We have put forward our demands very clearly: that Taiwan's new leader accept the 'one China' principle unequivocally and acknowledge that they are Chinese, clearly, and also promise to seek the goal of national reunification," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao told reporters yesterday.

Beijing is acutely suspicious of Chen's intentions because his past proclamations run contrary to his present pronouncements.

"Chen Shui-bian in the past has himself backed independence and [his] Democratic Progressive Party's platform still calls for Taiwan statehood," says Sun Ru, an analyst with the Beijing-based Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank.

"So anything Chen says has to be judged in light of his past actions and beliefs," she adds.

Taiwan and China have been politically split since the 1949 Chinese civil war, and for decades their only means of communication was through firing missiles across the Taiwan Strait.

Since becoming president last month, Chen has offered to open direct transportation and trade links with the mainland, hold a summit with Communist Party Chief Jiang Zemin, and thaw out an eight-year-old agreement that was reached at the height of peace moves across the Taiwan Strait.

In taking those steps, Chen has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis from fiery, pro-independence activist to a moderate, pro-peace leader who uses every opportunity possible to wave olive branches in the face of Chinese war threats.

On the eve of Chen's election, Beijing issued repeated threats to attack Taiwan if it declared independence or halted talks on reunification, but Chen has called for conciliation based on a common Chinese culture.

"Chen Shui-bian wants to break through the cold war with a handshake," says a top adviser to Taiwan's president.

The adviser, who asked not to be identified, says Chen "was inspired when the leaders of [communist] North Korea and [democratic] South Korea met in a summit, and he hopes that meeting can be a model for Taiwan and the mainland."

But Taiwan's new flexibility keeps hitting up against the mainland's hard-line intransigence.

Analyst Sun says the leaders of China are unlikely to agree to meet as equals with the rulers of tiny Taiwan on a level playing field. "Both Koreas are members of the UN, but there is only one China seat at the UN, and that is held by Beijing," she says.

Taiwan's new leader is beginning to believe that every peace move he makes triggers only hostility or silence on Beijing's part, and to wonder whether the entire effort is futile, says his adviser. "Every time we open the door, Beijing closes it - every time we try to jump a wall, Beijing builds a new one," he says.

In the 1992 pact that Chen seeks to revive, the two sides said there was only one China, but they agreed to disagree on the definition of 'one China.'

Chen made a major concession in recognizing that understanding, and is now fighting a rear-guard action launched by members of his own party, says the adviser. Some DPP leaders want to ultimately formalize Taiwan's de facto autonomy with a declaration of independence, regardless of the risks of war, he adds.

Taiwan, with the help of the US, fended off a mainland invasion during the height of the cold war, but the times are changing.

The Pentagon said in a recent report that China's rapid economic growth could fuel its defense expansion, and in turn allow Beijing to outpace Taiwan in military might.

Over the next decade, "it will become more and more difficult for Taiwan to compete with the mainland's military modernization," says Andrew Yang, a military expert at the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, which is affiliated with Taiwan's defense ministry.

Mr. Yang says that with Chinese purchases of Russian and Israeli arms, along with its own production of advanced missiles, "there is concern that in the near future, the mainland will begin pulling ahead in weapons technology."

China's military superiority

If China's 2.5-million-strong Army is factored into the equation, it's unclear how long Taiwan could defend itself from a mainland attack even if the US steps up weapons sales, he adds.

Politicians and experts on both sides of the Taiwan Strait say that hard-liners in the Chinese Army want Beijing to flex its military muscles to force Taiwan into a Communist-led grouping, but some add that more reformist voices here may eventually echo Chen's calls for peaceful reconciliation.

"Maybe Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji need time to convince party hard-liners and the military to back talks with Taiwan," says Chen's adviser.

But Chinese analyst Sun says China has already displayed enormous patience over reclaiming Taiwan, and "will not make any more concessions."

"Time is running out for Chen Shui-bian," Sun warns. "If the stalemate isn't broken over the next several years, there could be a war across the Taiwan Strait."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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