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Why The Straits Of Taiwan Are Looking Calmer

International Outlook


After nearly three years of standoffs and saber-rattling, Taipei and Beijing are close to resuming talks that China broke off after Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's 1995 visit to the U.S. Beijing took the first step by offering a major concession. Instead of insisting, as before, that the reunification of Taiwan with China be on the agenda, Beijing is now ready to discuss practical matters such as fishing rights without raising the charged reunification issue. One Chinese official says Beijing also may offer to "renounce the use of force" in its dealings with Taiwan to smooth long-term discussions about reunification.

Powerful forces are shaping China's new tactics. President Jiang Zemin is due to hold another summit with President Clinton this summer. China's ambitious economic makeover, orchestrated by Premier Zhu Rongji, could use more Taiwanese knowhow and investments. At the same time, Beijing is nervous about the rise of Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the possibility that it might fan support for independence. Analysts say the DPP will advance in general elections this year, and a tough Chinese stance on reunification would only advance the DPP cause.

President Lee can't afford to get sucked into talks about reunification, either. Taiwan's newly enfranchised voters are deeply divided over independence. Most favor the present ambiguous situation, but polls show the proportion favoring independence is growing. "Lee's interest is to keep the status quo as long as possible. There's no consensus in domestic politics on the one-China issue," says Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies.

New talks could sharpen differences. The issue of who rules Taiwan won't stay in the background forever now that Hong Kong is back in Chinese hands. Beijing insists it wants to move "step by step" and not force reunification talks--but they're still the objective. And Taiwan worries that Beijing will exploit the discussions to divide domestic opinion by, say, encouraging executives to press for direct flights to China.

PRESSURE. Despite Beijing's new line, old animosities lie close to the surface. China's Foreign Minister angrily denounced Taiwan on Mar. 12 for dragging its feet after Beijing offered to resume talks. He accused Taiwan of creating trouble in Southeast Asia--first in October by devaluing its currency and now by offering investment cash to win allies. "[They] want political rewards," says a Chinese official.

Indeed, Taiwan is busily seeking new friends because it feels pressured by the U.S. to negotiate with China. A string of former U.S. officials and academics--such as former Defense Secretary William Perry and Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School--have visited Taipei this year to urge talks with Beijing. "The U.S. is doing everything except overtly pressure Taiwan, but the pressure is real," says National Taiwan University political science Professor Chu Yun-han.

It could hardly be otherwise. At his summit with President Clinton last year, President Jiang won a renewed U.S. commitment to the one-China policy. Taiwan's courtship of Southeast Asia is hardly a counterbalance. Taiwan got a foot in the door with countries that don't officially recognize it, such as Malaysia. But these new friends aren't likely to stick their necks out and anger China.

The hard reality doesn't change. Beijing may use a more patient and less confrontational policy, thus easing regional tensions. But China's leaders are unswerving in their ultimate goal--they want to reclaim control of Taiwan.EDITED BY JOHN TEMPLEMAN By Jonathan Moore in Taipei, with Joyce Barnathan in BeijingReturn to top


-- The first round of French regional elections on Mar. 15 gave a weak endorsement to Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. His left-wing coalition is set to win at least 10 of France's 22 regions, up from 2 in 1992. But abstentions ran at 42%, high for France. And extreme parties on the left and right made gains, with Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme-right National Front garnering nearly 16% of votes.

The rising tides of extremism and apathy make it hard for Jospin to move the left toward the center and prepare France for global competition. Moderate-right parties, meanwhile, are still in disarray. Unwilling to align with Le Pen or rally behind a centrist platform, they seem destined to remain in opposition for some time.


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