- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2000

One of the inconveniences of democracy is that the result of an election is not a foregone conclusion. That may be hard enough for members of the political establishment in this country to accept. For the communist leadership of the People's Republic of China, it is enough to drive them crazy. And the election in question is not even their own. For the past several months, Beijing has been trying to dictate the outcome of Taiwan's presidential elections, culminating in a barrage of bellicose rhetoric from the top leadership itself over the past three days. Taiwan's voters go to the polls today. The outcome is a mater of intense interest not just in Beijing and Taiwan, but in Washington as well. No other issue has the potential for igniting trouble in U.S.-China relations as does Taiwan.

If you listen to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, he sounds like nothing so much as the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev promising to rain walls of fire on Western Europe in the early 1980s, should deployment of Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces proceed against Soviet wishes. This week, Mr. Rongji's threats became so extreme that even the U.S. State Department found it necessary to protest and that says a lot. Mr. Rongji stated that "No matter who comes into power in Taiwan, Taiwan will never be allowed to be independent. This is our bottom line and the will of 1.25 billion Chinese people." And there was also this: "The Chinese people are ready to shed blood and sacrifice their lives to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the motherland."

The Chinese premier's outrageous interference in an election that certainly isn't his to call was reinforced by the Feb. 21 publication of a white paper from the Taiwan Affairs Office, threatening the use of military force against Taiwan if the island's leadership tried to put off reunification indefinitely.

The difference between Taiwan's 2000 presidential election and the previous vote in 1996, is the unpredictability of it all. Back then, things got hairy enough, with the crisis over President Lee Teng-Hui's (private) visit in 1995 to the United States, and with China actually lobbing missiles over Taiwan for purposes of intimidation. The outcome, however, was fairly easy to predict. This time there are three candidates: Mr. Lee's vice president, Lien Chan, independent James Soong, and the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Chen Shui-bian, who is leading in the polls. Beijing is particularly concerned about the DPP, which for a long time had Taiwanese independence on its platform. This has been downgraded to a referendum on independence, but few believe Mr. Chen would actively pursue it.

Still, the possibility clearly drives Beijing up the wall. Even though statements like the above could prove seriously detrimental to China's efforts to win Permanent Normal Trade Relations in a congressional vote requested by the Clinton administration, relations with the United States obviously come rather far down the list of priorities for mainland China, relative to bullying Taiwan into submission.

Congressional reaction may be judged by remarks made by House Majority Whip Tom Delay this week in a speech at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, who called on the administration to give up its "one-China" policy. "In my view, whatever utility 'One China' diplomatic fiction might have had 25 years ago has been erased by the new reality. There are, in fact, two Chinese states."

What is clear is this: Only the voters of democratic Taiwan can determine their future. However, it will be up to the United States to vouch for their safety and freedom as they make that choice.

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