- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

TAIPEI, Taiwan Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji yesterday warned Taiwanese voters and the United States not to underestimate Beijing's resolve to reunify with the island state that it considers a rebel province.

"The Chinese people will use all their blood and even sacrifice their lives to defend the unity of our motherland and the dignity of the Chinese nation," Mr. Zhu told reporters in Beijing.

The rhetorical salvo by a sneering, finger-pointing Mr. Zhu came just three days before the island elects a new president. It was widely viewed as an attempt to drive the island's 15 million voters away from popular pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian.

"Let me give advice to all the people of Taiwan: Do not act just on impulse at this critical juncture," Mr. Zhu said, adding that they may regret their choice.

In response, Taiwan's Defense Minister Tang Fei said today that the island did not seek war, but neither did it fear conflict.

"The national armed forces will never seek war, but to maintain our democratic politics, they will not resist war either," Mr. Tang told reporters. "The Ministry of Defense this morning instructed the armed forces to be calm, vigilant and maintain our standard readiness."

But Mr. Tang indicated Taiwan's military viewed Mr. Zhu's threats against the island as bluster. He said the comments "lacked new substance and were more bullying in tone."

Without mentioning Mr. Chen by name, Mr. Zhu said the election was being rigged to favor "someone who is for Taiwan independence."

Taiwan's top official on mainland Chinese affairs immediately fired back.

"Mr. Zhu, among other People's Republic of China officials, has no right to say anything about our election," Su Chi, chairman of the Cabinet's Mainland Affairs Council, told reporters.

Mr. Chen, the candidate for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, weighed into the verbal slugfest by declaring at a campaign rally: "We are not the second Hong Kong. We are not the second Macao. We are not part of China. We are an independent, sovereign country."

Chinese threats have dominated the Taiwanese presidential campaign, prompting bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill and calls by the White House for Beijing and Taipei to exercise restraint.

Mr. Chen's candidacy has divided Taiwanese voters and given his opponents powerful ammunition to brand him as a loose cannon who could lead the nation into a dangerous confrontation with the mainland.

"Don't vote for the candidate who will increase tensions across the Taiwan Strait," President Lee Teng-hui told tens of thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters at an outdoor banquet in Taipei.

Expectations of a certain victory for his chosen successor, Vice President Lien Chan, were destroyed last year with the defection of a party leader, James Soong, who is running for president as an independent. Of the three candidates, Mr. Soong is seen as the most conciliatory toward Beijing.

Fears of a Chen victory have also driven the Taipei stock market down sharply this week, with investors fearing a fall in two-way trade with the mainland.

Mr. Chen has pledged not to declare formal independence from China, a move that Beijing says would trigger war. He has vowed to seek new peace talks with mainland leaders and to boost trade between China and Taiwan.

At the same time, he has infuriated Beijing by repeatedly proclaiming, as he did yesterday, that there is no need for formal declarations because Taiwan is already independent from the mainland.

The message resonates with many voters, who increasingly view China as a distant, hostile power and believe the United States will come to Taiwan's rescue if tension reaches a dangerous level.

"The mainland is shameless. They want to make us into ashes under their artillery, but we have nothing to be afraid of. The mainland will never attack us because we have the international police the United States," said Wang Ya-lung, 37, a taxi driver. "Think about what happened in Kuwait."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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