Right before Taiwan's Presidential election, Beijing is threatening to use force if it doesn't accept China's new demand to set a deadline for reunification. Beijing's frustration is understandable, for Taiwan truly is slipping away. A new Taiwanese identity is emerging, and the island's growing prosperity and democracy make the idea of reunification with the mainland ever more remote. Yet domestic politics demands that Chinese President Jiang Zemin bring Taiwan back into the fold.

In a lengthy white paper issued by the powerful State Council, China recently announced that it would not wait indefinitely for negotiations to reunite Taiwan to the mainland and threatened military force if Taipei drags its heels. Clearly this is an attempt to influence the election.

Beijing should instead to get in touch with mainstream opinion in Taiwan and come to grips with the fact that there's virtually no support for reunification under Communist Party rule. It needs to woo the hearts and minds of ordinary Taiwanese. Beijing, in short, needs to behave more like the sort of responsible global power that it envisions itself to be.

The U.S., for its part, needs to make it clear that it won't tolerate force. And it must be ready to act, just as it did when it sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996. But there's no reason to overreact to Beijing's bluster. One such overreaction would be for the Senate to pass the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which isn't really needed to help Taiwan defend itself.

Reunification with Taiwan is a political issue that tends to override most economic considerations. The U.S. should promote China's continuing economic reforms by giving it most favored nation status on a permanent basis before China joins the World Trade Organization. But there should be no illusions that this would diminish China's desire to be reunited with Taiwan.

It's up to Beijing to realize that for peaceful reunification to occur, China must eventually become more like Taiwan. And military reunification is not an option.

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