Beijing's Patience May Be Running Out

Its harsh words could signal a dangerous shift in attitude

The last time Beijing tried influencing a key election in Taiwan, the results were humiliating. Outraged at China's missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in the spring of 1996, voters overwhelmingly returned President Lee Teng-hui to office.

This time around, China is resorting to less spectacular pyrotechnics. But the message Communist Party leaders delivered on Feb. 21, in the form of a lengthy white paper, is just as chilling. The document from the powerful State Council says that China will not wait "indefinitely" for negotiations to reunite Taiwan to the mainland, and threatens "drastic measures, including military force," if Taipei drags its heels.

The immediate intent apparently is to intimidate voters away from Chen Shui-bian, leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and tilt support toward a moderate candidate, politician James Soong or Vice-President Lien Chan of the ruling Kuomintang. The statements also could be a warning to Lee, lest he make more moves in the direction of independence before the next president is sworn in.

But there are also reasons to believe that a dangerous shift in Beijing's thinking is under way. For one, the Taiwanese have done little to provoke China: All three candidates want better ties with Beijing, and even Chen has sharply toned down his rhetoric. Also, the document was no hot-headed outburst from hard-liners. Analysts say it was the product of months of discussion among military and foreign-policy mandarins.

In truth, Beijing's patience may be running out. Regaining Taiwan has been a priority of President Jiang Zemin and other leaders since the handovers of Hong Kong and Macao. But as the years pass, a new democratic culture is taking root in Taiwan, and reunification looks more unlikely. "The Chinese are frustrated, and their frustration is building," says a Western observer in Taipei who tracks cross-strait ties.

Lee's declaration last July that talks between the two countries should be done on a "state-to-state" basis sent tempers soaring in Beijing. "Taiwan wants independence," claims Yan Xue Tong, foreign-policy studies director at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. "History proves almost no country can get independence without war."

Beijing may be gaining confidence that it can prevail in a confrontation. Although the Chinese navy is no match for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the two Sovremennyy-class destroyers it is buying from Russia may be equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles. That could make Washington think harder about sending aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait.

China also has beefed up deployment of missiles capable of hitting targets on Taiwan. Defense experts such as Peter Brookes, Republican adviser on Asia to the House International Relations Committee, believe China's aim is to show "you don't have to invade Taiwan to take it over." If China can prove that its missiles would overwhelm any defense system Taiwan could erect, Beijing could intimidate Taipei into capitulating before suffering devastating damage to the island's key military and economic infrastructure. The white paper "shows America that this Taiwan independence issue should not be touched," says Su Ge of Beijing's Foreign Affairs College.

PROTEST VOTE? Yet China's gambit could backfire. The reaction in Washington has been fierce. The Senate is now expected to approve a new bill to enhance Taiwan's security that already has passed the House. And congressional approval of the Clinton Administration's deal to allow China into the World Trade Organization may be doomed for this year. In Taiwan, the harsh tactics could harden sentiment against Beijing. Even the pro-Beijing Soong has declared that "the people of Taiwan will absolutely not accept Communist China forcing us toward negotiation."

For now, the Taiwanese are taking Beijing's tirade in stride. "I don't see any influence on our business at all," says United Microelectronics Corp. CEO Peter Chang. "This is the regular threat that we see." But mistakes happen. And the danger that one could spark an actual conflict is growing.

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