China Taiwan: Dire Straits Again

Taiwan baits Beijing--and rattles Washington--with a two-China stance

Summer is in full swing. So is it time for a new crisis in Asia? That has been the pattern for two years running. Until now, it seemed, 1999 might be different. Many of the Asian economies that were so troubling in 1997 and 1998 now seem to be on the mend. There are even positive vibes out of Japan.

But then there's China. Suddenly, the Taiwan Strait looks like a dangerous place again. Just days after Taipei and Beijing scheduled a new round of talks, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui on July 9 shocked Beijing by telling an interviewer that negotiations should proceed on a "state-to-state" basis, with China and Taiwan assuming equal status. Lee stopped short of announcing full independence. But his evident repudiation of the one-China policy, creates the potential for a dangerous confrontation between an intractable Taipei and an outraged Beijing. The move may also complicate matters for China's would-be reformers, such as Zhu Rongji, who is under pressure from hard-liners at home after failing to win a commitment by the U.S. to help get it into the World Trade Organization.

Whether Lee's remarks lead to a real confrontation, they have already made America's China policy more dicey. Lee's provocative statement bewildered and angered the Clinton Administration, which has been trying to find ways to repair strained relations with Beijing since the Belgrade embassy bombing.

Lee's posturing may indeed be aimed in part at taking advantage of rising anti-China sentiment in the U.S. A Republican Congress angry over Chinese nuclear espionage could conceivably defy the White House and back Taiwan in a new war of nerves with Beijing. Thus, playing Washington off Beijing could help Lee.

Lee also has a simpler agenda. With Washington and Beijing pushing Taiwan toward political talks in October, he feels he must set up some way for Taiwan to deal with China as an equal before then. Taiwan's de facto independence would be jeopardized if it let Beijing set all the definitions and conditions for negotiations. "There has been growing disappointment and resentment in our society that Beijing has used the one-China idea to denigrate Taiwan," says Lin Chong-pin, deputy chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

BIG GAMBLE. Lee also seems to see it as his historical mission to prepare Taiwan for independence. If his gamble works, and Beijing does little more than bluster, then Lee can claim to have put Taiwan in a strong bargaining position for any further talks with Beijing down the road. That would be the supreme political achievement for Lee, who leaves office next May.

But the move could also backfire. Beijing, which has consistently warned Taiwan that it risks military invasion if it pursues a formal split, sees Lee's move as just short of a declaration of independence. Lee is "playing with fire," and Taiwan would suffer "monumental disaster" as a result, the Chinese government warned. Far from taking up Taiwan's new cause, the White House simply restated its one-China policy while Taiwan's Republican friends on Capitol Hill quietly fretted.

For now, China's strategy will be to follow up its denunciations with an international diplomacy campaign to get Taiwan to reverse course. If Taiwan doesn't budge, though, Beijing will move to sterner measures. "The Chinese government will take firm action whether it will undermine the U.S.-China relationship or not. Military action is quite possible," says Yan Xuetong, director of foreign-policy studies at Beijing's China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. If it gets to that point, Beijing may respond with a massive show of military force on the shores facing Taiwan, including war games.

A full-blown military crisis--Washington's worst nightmare--can't be ruled out. The U.S. has built its Taiwan policy around getting the two sides back to the table, and if the October talks are scuttled, it would be a major setback. Lee's policy switch defies President Clinton's clear opposition to a two-China policy. The last time Beijing and Taipei tangled and Beijing lobbed missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to cool things down. This time, the U.S. is warning Taiwan that it will go it alone if it insists on a provocative two-China policy.

ENDGAME. All this makes Lee's stand seem very risky--outside of Taiwan. But it plays well at home, where many people resent being regarded as second-class citizens of China. "Taiwan is really afraid that if it negotiates with China as a local government, then we will be defeated as soon as we sit down at the table," says Joseph Wu, a research fellow at National Chengchi University. Lee, 76, has been President since 1988 and hopes to be succeeded next March by his unpopular Vice-President, Lien Chan, who would presumably continue his policies. Lee may hope that looking tough with China will win voters, as it did in 1996. And he may hope to portray rival James Soong, a mainlander who leads in the polls, as an untrustworthy China sympathizer.

Beijing has long suspected Lee, a native-born Taiwanese who was educated in Japan, of secretly favoring independence. Indeed, now in his political endgame, he may feel it's his last chance. "President Lee's thinking is very close to the idea of Taiwan independence, and he wants to see that his ideas can still be effective after he steps down," says Yeh Ming-teh, a political scientist at Taiwan's National Chi-Nan University.

But Beijing's leaders have their own reasons to get tough now. Externally, it would show that China is strong--even after being thwarted is its WTO ambitions and being excluded from the group of nations intervening in Kosovo. Internally, the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty is emotionally charged. None of the leaders can afford to look soft on Taiwan.

It's significant that Lee dropped his bombshell in an interview with the German broadcasting company Deutsche Welle. While divided, East and West Germany were able to coexist and recognize each other's sovereignty--exactly the model Lee would like Taiwan and China to follow. Eventually, the Germanys reunified but only after the East succumbed to capitalism. That's not the kind of reunification Beijing has in mind, however.

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