China throwing diplomatic elbows to isolate Taiwan

Beijing has recently thwarted Taiwan's free trade negotiations and attendance at international conferences.

For nearly three years, until last month, China has adopted a non-bellicose approach toward Taiwan, whose independence stirrings greatly upset Beijing, and brought censure last week from President Bush. China's so-called "soft strategy" has earned it points for a reasonable moderation that promotes stability and avoids an inflammatory war of words over Taiwan's status.

Yet parallel to Beijing's soft strategy has been a tough strategy of harassment designed to block Taiwan from any normal activity. This "hard strategy," little noted, has further isolated Taiwan in the international arena. It includes an extraordinary range of actions, both major and minor - from impeding free-trade agreements in Asia, to censuring Taiwanese world beauty-pageant contestants, to a recent build up of missiles aimed from the Fujian coastline.

Take, for example, Taiwan's effort to join the World Expo 2005 in Japan. Taiwan cannot participate as a state, but was told it could have a booth as an unofficial entity. "We were told not to worry, that it was no problem," a Taipei official states. "We worked hard on our proposal. Then in October, on the eve of the announcement, we heard - no Taiwan presence. China discovered our plan, and made a demand of Tokyo that it couldn't refuse."

Last summer, to take another example, a Taiwanese diplomat flew to Morocco for a women's issues forum. The diplomat, a woman, had not only a visa, but a letter of invitation from the president of Morocco. Yet at Moroccan customs she was ushered into a small room, and given the news: She could not enter. A Chinese diplomat had created a fuss.

China has long blocked Taiwanese participation in international venues, and wooed its diplomatic allies in an effort to diminish the island's status. China ardently regards Taiwan as part of the motherland. Yet as China continues to rise in the region, and as the number of nations with formal ties to Taiwan has fallen to 27, Beijing is trying to further box Taiwan within its island borders, officials here say. They also point to worries in Beijing this fall after 200,000 Taiwanese marched in what appeared to be solidarity with 500,000 Hong Kong protesters.

Below the media radar screen China has stepped up efforts to wear out, demoralize, and, as one Taipei defense specialist says, "psychologically browbeat" the island of 23 million. The "hard strategy" ranges from tracking Taiwanese diplomats, to a systematic strangling of effort to conduct free-trade agreements, to the effective banning of visits by Taiwanese leaders to most nations of the world.

In the past year, they argue, China has launched a full-scale effort to nullify any Taiwanese presence in the nongovernmental organization realm. This includes participation in conferences and scholarly exchanges in areas like agriculture, the arts, the environment, arms control, and social issues such as health and gender. Last spring, in the midst of China's SARS crisis, Beijing initially blocked visits by World Health Organization officials to Taiwan - angering many Taiwanese.

Taipei officials say the subterranean "hard war" is conducted in hotel lobbies, airport lounges, and customs, by diplomatic demarche, by cellphone, by Chinese officials poring over local newspapers, during lunches and visits by Chinese to leading officials in world capitals, and by threats of monetary retribution through loss of business, higher taxes or tariffs, or lack of cooperation in global forums.

"We feel it everywhere, all the time," says a Taiwan trade official assigned to an Asian capital. "Both before and after [Chinese Premier] Wen visited Washington, Beijing issued talking points to its embassies and consulates, telling them to step up their anti-Taiwan pressures."

Such reports are difficult to confirm. But they fit a history of such instructions.

The hard-strategy pressure has pocketbook implications. Two years ago Taiwan tried to negotiate a lowering of tariffs with Singapore. When news leaked, China reacted and talks ended. Yet Taiwanese investment in China is rising, from $8 billion in 1993 to more than $100 billion today.

"In the mid-90s, when the US was our main trade partner, we could afford to ignore free-trade perks with our neighbors," says analyst Lai I-Chung. "Today, our inability to approach Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea hurts us. [Now] we can have free trade only with China."

What Taipei calls the "toughest squeeze" came Dec. 9 when President Bush sat with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Oval Office and appeared to oppose any change in Taiwan's status - a clear rebuff to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian over a planned referendum in March.

Taiwan may have no one to blame but Mr. Chen for the rebuff, analysts say. The White House has been preoccupied with Iraq, and unwilling to contemplate trouble in East Asia - troubles signaled when Beijing warned last month of war if an independence referendum were to be held.

Chen advisers quickly clarified that they did not want an independence referendum. But a White House envoy carrying a letter from Bush to Chen was not given access to the Taiwan president.

Even some US Taiwan sympathizers argue that Taipei officials are "expert whiners," as one defense specialist put it.

Taiwan presidential adviser Joseph Wu rejects this claim, arguing that Taiwan suffers from "inherently unfair" treatment.

"When we face a threat by China, no one pays attention," Wu argues. "When we respond or complain, we are called 'troublemakers.'"

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