Ninety miles from China, along Taiwan's northern coast, the Hsinchu Air Base is socked in by a sleepy spring drizzle. All is quiet. But should China ever attack Taiwan, the island's F-16 and Mirage interceptor jets will scramble from the grass-covered hangars set like bunkers in the ground.
Shieh Tzay-jen, a city employee who lives just outside the base, says China is getting stronger, repeating what's heard again and again in Taiwan: "If we say we want independence, China will attack us. So we just don't say anything. We need to first be safe. Then we can be independent."
As China's Vice Premier Qian Qichen meets President Bush today, much of what Mr. Qian is expected to convey centers around a possible sale to Taiwan of US-made, Aegis-radar- equipped destroyers.
"The Aegis is very important to China, otherwise the Chinese would not send its senior diplomat, uninvited, to Washington to stop it," says Taiwan's Maj. Gen. Tyson Fu. "On our side, we think it is reasonable to request the Aegis. We need it."
China fears the Aegis would not only give Taiwan a formidable new defense against Chinese ballistic missiles aimed at the island, but could potentially integrate Taiwan into the US-led military defense systems of East Asia, which include Japan and South Korea. Taiwan is a geostrategic center for shipping, commerce, and sits on an oil lane for Asia to the Middle East.
Beijing and Taipei are both looking down the road to the mid-term: Taipei hopes that it can engineer a separation from the mainland that is irreversible. Beijing is doing what it can to stop Taipei's permanent separation.
"I see Beijing at a crossroads," says Chong-pin Lin, vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan. "Their Army is developing pockets of excellence but they face social unrest. That makes me a long-term optimist, less of a short-term pessimist. But the midterm uncertainties loom large."
On the one side is a Taiwan that in the past decade has abandoned its claims on the Chinese mainland, become a high-tech giant, undergone a successful democratic transfer of power, talks about a distinctive "Taiwanese identity," and is hoping to outwait China's bid on its territory. Taiwanese see the Aegis as part defense, and part of an evolutionary move away from China - though no officials want to say so on the record.
On the other side is a rising China, 1.3 billion strong, developing into the superpower of Asia, that has recently regained the territories of Hong Kong and Macau, and whose leaders have increased the rhetoric about "reuniting" with Taiwan. The Aegis could delay China's designs on the island. When it is built in five to seven years, the Aegis could coordinate a wide array of land- and sea-based defenses to help knock down incoming ballistic missiles.
The drama is part of the still unresolved history dating back more than 50 years to the civil war, when the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces were driven from the mainland by the Communists.
Since that time, the two sides have developed completely apart. Today, the average annual income in Taiwan is more than $20,000, compared with $250 per year on the mainland.
Taipei, the capital, does not have the high-maintenance manicured feel of Asian cities like Singapore or Hong Kong, or even the innovative skyscrapers of Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur. Taipei, with its '70s and '80s-era sprawling construction and slightly mildewed buildings, is a bit like a messy but comfortable living room, relaxed and open. Three-story Starbucks are found on the main avenues. Scooters, a main transportation mode, are neatly parked side by side on the sidewalk for miles during work hours.
In the past decade, Taiwan has undergone a series of small revolutions in its self-concept. From 1949 until the early 1990s, the official position of the KMT was to one day retake control of the mainland. Only in 1992 did the Taiwanese military formally acknowledge that the defense of Taiwan, not an extension of Taiwan's influence in the region, was its primary purpose.
"For several decades the leadership of the KMT was living in a fantasy world, a virtual-reality China," says one local expert here who requested anonymity. "What the election of [current president] Chen Shui-bian last year signaled is that Taiwan is no longer captive to the old guard."
The election of the first opposition party in Taiwan's history was also viewed with trepidation by Beijing, which warned that any attempt by the new president to declare independence would bring an immediate war. Not until several months ago would Beijing officials even speak Mr. Chen's name in public.
Here, despite sentiments of an older generation that fled the mainland, most Taiwanese no longer think much about gaining the mainland. Opinion polls regularly record that between 70 and 80 percent of Taiwanese do not want to join China. Former President Lee Teng-hui, who began to push for a sovereign Taiwan in the 1990s, argued that the somewhat awkward name "Republic of China" really meant the Republic of China, on Taiwan.
By contrast, an entire new generation of mainland Chinese - despite never having been to Taiwan, but raised to feel that China is not whole without it - passionately declare that Taiwan must be returned to the "motherland."
The drama is viewed with more than a little concern in Washington. The US is not eager to be drawn into a military exchange with China, despite commitments to democracy on the island - with the added recognition that not to come to Taiwan's defense would send a long, cold shiver through the rest of East Asia. While the Clinton administration deferred on Aegis sales to Taiwan, the Bush administration is seen as less conciliatory to Beijing.
Last week, Adm. Dennis Blair, head of the US Pacific Fleet, came to Beijing for military-to-military consultations with counterparts in the People's Liberation Army. He pointed out to reporters that whether the Aegis is sold to Taiwan "depends in large measure on the actions of the Chinese themselves," who he said had positioned 300 missiles on Fujian province, opposite Taiwan.
"The Chinese are adding about 50 missiles a year and there will be a point at which that will begin to threaten the sufficient defense of Taiwan," Admiral Blair said.
"I think it is important for the Chinese to make the connection between what they deploy on their side of the strait, and the types of technology that the US might make available to Taiwan. Certainly a future sea-based, Aegis- based defense program would be part of that."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor