China issues mild but clear warning on Taiwan

Beijing warns 'force may be unavoidable' if Taiwan furthers independence moves.

Looking seaward through a mist on the Xiamen coastline one can just make out the shape of Taiwanese territory, the Jinmen Islands. Here, the proximity of Taiwan, China's main object of desire, is palpable. Fishermen from Jinmen often ply their boats in Chinese waters and dock at the port of Xiamen to sell their catch.

The Fujian coast is the closest point to Taiwan from the mainland, and here is where People's Liberation Army missiles point out across the Taiwan Straits, targeting Taipei. Here is where any attack of the kind threatened by an PLA general this week in Beijing, would originate. A huge sign in characters facing Jinman reads "One Country - Two Systems," China's formula for unification with what it calls the renegade island.

Beijing's threat on Wednesday to attack Taiwan is the first of such rhetoric heard from China in nearly three years. Maj. Gen. Wang Zaixi of the Taiwan Affairs Office said that "the use of force may be unavoidable" if Taipei were to continue its efforts at formal independence, such as holding a proposed 2006 referendum to change Taiwan's current Constitution.

Thursday, Taiwanese officials responded to the threats. "We can't tolerate interference with our internal affairs by any undemocratic countries," stated a cabinet spokesperson, Lin Chia-lung.

The newly martial rhetoric by Beijing was seen by analysts as a mild but clear early-warning shot to the world community, specifically the United States, that it won't let Taiwan consider itself a normal nation. The Bush administration has been quietly stepping up efforts to arm and support Taipei, even while continuing to denounce efforts by Taiwan to force any subject as sensitive as independence on the China's communist rulers.

"I don't think this means war is anywhere on the immediate horizon," says one Western analyst in Beijing. "But it means that China is getting a little worried about [Taiwanese President] Chen Shui-bian, and may not feel like remaining quiet indefinitely."

Chinese threats also show that - like the Bush administration's often ill-concealed splits between Pentagon hawks and State Department moderates - China has its own various schools of thinking about how to deal with sensitive foreign policy subjects.

General Wang's comments were made at a symposium and reported in the English-language China Daily, though not in the Chinese press. They came as Asst. Secretary of State James Kelly was in Beijing to discuss the upcoming six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program - and ahead of Premier Wen Jiabao's first visit to Washington in a few weeks.

For the past three years, China has adopted a "soft offensive" on the Taiwan question, avoiding the fiery rhetoric of the past, and hoping that economic integration will move the two sides of the strait inexorably into each other's embrace.

As the sun sets today, here on the beach at Xiamen, there is little feeling of anything remotely close to war preparation. Teenage couples steal some time together, and there's an amateur kickboxing match. The high schoolers, who have all seen the Hollywood blockbuster "The Matrix" in the past week, are thinking more about that film than Taiwan. Down the road is a huge Dell Computer plant, a Toyota factory, and everywhere new, upscale apartment complexes are under construction, making the coastal city look like a little Singapore.

China regards Taiwan as its exclusive property, the last link in a equation that will give the Middle Kingdom strategic dominance in Asia. With China now deeply involved in managing the North Korean crisis, the Taiwan dispute is potentially one of the most destabilizing in Asia - since the US is committed to aiding Taiwan. (What that means has long been deliberately ambiguous in US strategy.)

Many progressive thinkers in China, including peace activists who are opposed to war in almost any form, have been known to abandon their views when it comes to the Taiwan question. The issue connects deeply with Chinese ideas of sovereignty, and even to the purpose of the Communist Party as the government of China.

In 2000, when Mr. Chen was elected leader of Taiwan on an independence platform, in the first real democratic elections on the island - Beijing's reaction was virulent. Not until a year ago was Chen's name allowed to be published in Chinese state media. Yet, many in China's leadership circles argued that their own vitriolic bombast lent him voter support. A posture of calm and quiet was adopted, a strategy of economic integration pursued along with efforts to ensure that Chen is not reelected next March.

Only last August, it appeared that the Chen administration was on the ropes. The ruling DPP was running seven to 10 points behind in the polls; Chen was heavily criticized as being visionless and as an obstructionist to Taiwanese business interests in China.

Yet Chen now seems to have taken the offensive again. In the wake of mass protests in Hong Kong last summer, Taipei organized its own 200,000-strong independence rally.

A Chinese attack on Taiwan would rank as a catastrophic event in Asia with unforeseen consequences on every front. One clear result, say analysts, would be an undoing of the past five years of China's evolution: that China is no longer a revolutionary state, that it is a stable harbor for investment, and a reliable and dependable regional partner that hews to the international mainstream.

What Beijing's comments this week suggest, however, is that "no options are off the table," says a Western analyst.

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