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Beijing rattles war sabers at Taiwan again
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Abandoning its tone of tolerance toward Taiwan in recent months, the Chinese government raised the stakes on Wednesday by threatening war should the island's "extreme push for independence" cross a red line.

For a second straight day, the state press rallied to condemn Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's move toward holding a referendum on "independence" and providing the legislative framework for declaring the island a separate state.

Curbing Taiwan's independence "crusade" is at the heart of the mainland's Taiwan policy. The China Daily newspaper quoted Wang Zaixi, vice minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office, as saying, "War will break out if the island declares independence.

"If the Taiwan authorities collude with all splittist forces to openly engage in pro-independence activities and challenge the mainland and the one-China principle, the use of force may become unavoidable," Wang warned.

Taiwan has been ruled separately from mainland China since the 1949 Civil War, when Kuomintang party forces were defeated by the guerrilla communist army of Mao Zedong and fled to the island.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has threatened to use force if the island declares independence. Virulent criticism of the island's leaders and a barrage of threats once followed every move by the Taiwanese authorities in what Beijing terms "a creeping process toward independence".

In the past two years however, in a reflection of its growing regional clout and confidence in achieving reunification with Taiwan, Beijing has toned down its vehement rhetoric.

"China has changed since 2002," said Robert Ross, a political scientist with the Boston College. "It knows its power and it realizes it doesn't have to flex its muscles with Taiwan.''

A spate of provocative Taiwanese moves in the summer elicited only muted reactions from Beijing. More than 50,000 people demonstrated in Taipei in early September, calling for the island's official name to be changed from the Republic of China to Taiwan.

Beijing labeled the protests a move toward independence, but its reaction bore no resemblance to the torrents of abuse it had directed at Taiwanese authorities in the past.

Last month, however, at a mass rally of more than 200,000 people, Chen pledged to push through a referendum law before the presidential elections in March 2004 and then, if re-elected, hold a plebiscite by 2006 on altering the 1947 constitution.

"It will be stated in the new constitution that Taiwan is an independent sovereign state which is not a province or special administrative district under another country. Taiwan and China are two countries on each side of the Taiwan Straits," Chen stated.

Although Chen had refused to formally embrace the "one China" policy Beijing subscribes to, after his election in May 2000 he made a pledge not to declare independence, not to change Taiwan's official name from the current "Republic of China" and not to seek to hold a referendum on independence.

The mass pro-independence rally in October was followed by Chen's visit to New York and Alaska this month, where he was given unprecedented access to US media. While attending a centennial celebration in Panama, Chen conferred with US Secretary of State Colin Powell - the highest level of contact between the United States and Taiwan since Washington cut diplomatic ties with the island in 1972 and recognized the People's Republic of China.

Beijing fears that harsh rhetoric on Chen might boost support for him in the coming elections as it did during the previous poll. In 2000, Chen's Democratic Progressive Party won a landslide victory over the Kuomintang and he became Taiwan's first pro-independence leader.

Nevertheless, for a long time after the elections Beijing continued to dismiss him as an interim leader and former Chinese Foreign Minster Tang Jiaxuan referred to him as a "contemptible liar".

If in the next year's elections, the Kuomintang regains its 50-year control over the island, it may quickly move to open the "three links", allowing direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland and laying the foundation for future reunification.

But if Chen is re-elected - an option Beijing fears but cannot rule out - he may proceed to hold a referendum on Taiwan's independence and jeopardize the mainland's long-term plans on step-by-step reunification with the island.

Ever bolder declarations on independence by Taiwan in recent weeks have jolted Beijing to return to issuing a volley of harsh words. Chinese policymakers fear that staying quiet in the face of pro-independence statements might push Taiwanese leaders closer to declaring formal independence.

While visiting Washington last week, senior leader and former vice premier Qian Qichen warned that Washington's failure to take a clear-cut line on Taiwan independence might jeopardize peace in the Taiwan Straits.

A similar warning is expected to come when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits the United States next month. He is expected to lobby the White House to adhere to the "one China" policy and cut political and defense support for the island.

(Inter Press Service)
Nov 20, 2003

Taiwan and China: Too close for comfort? (Oct 24, '03)

Taiwan: Chen's mysterious constitution ploy
(Oct 9, '03)


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