- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan — As Taiwan heads into presidential elections tomorrow, it is once again exploring — some might say pushing — the limits of its prickly relationship with China.

After three presidential election campaigns and a historic shift in power, the democracy that has supplanted dictatorship in Taiwan ought to be something of a yawn. But elections, referendums and all the other trappings of nationhood become highly controversial when your giant communist neighbor contends that it is your rightful ruler and has never renounced the military option for recovering the island.

The 1996 election provoked China to test-fire missiles near Taiwan, and President Clinton sent in the 7th Fleet to calm the situation. The 2000 election prompted harsh words from China. And tensions have risen again as the island of 23 million heads to the polls.

The stakes for the United States, economic and strategic, are high. China and Taiwan are heavily armed. At the same time, the ubiquitous McDonald’s outlets in Taiwan and China are a vivid symbol of the huge trade the United States does with both. Taiwanese entrepreneurs keep the world in laptops and computer chips. And the rest of East Asia, warily watching China’s growing might, looks to Washington to be the counterweight.

Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since Mao Tse-tung’s communists took over the mainland in 1949 and Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government fled to Taiwan, 100 miles off China’s eastern coast.

As they continued to wage a hot-and-cold civil war, the only thing they agreed was that they were “one China.” But each claimed to be China’s sole legal ruler.

What’s relatively new is Taiwan’s noisy but effective democracy of today, in which leader Chen Shui-bian is running neck and neck with challenger Lien Chan, meaning that the Nationalists could regain the power they lost four years ago.

Until 1987, the Maryland-size island was under martial law and the party now in power was illegal. Then Taiwan started shifting to democracy and a generation born on the island began displacing the 1949 refugees. To them, the one-China doctrine looked increasingly anachronistic.

That trend reached a peak in the last presidential election, when the Nationalists finally were defeated by Mr. Chen, Taipei’s feisty former mayor.

The victory of his Democratic Progressive Party, once outlawed for defying the one-China dictum and seeking Taiwan’s independence, might have seemed like more than Beijing could stomach. But even before the vote, the DPP had softened its message. Taiwan already is an independent country, it argued, and doesn’t need to go further.

At a recent campaign stop in Taoyuan, a grimy industrial city, people blasted air horns and sang folk songs and Mr. Chen gave a fiery speech about how he would protect Taiwan from China.

In the crowd, Johnson Chiang reflected on how he evolved from a pro-unification Nationalist to an avid independence supporter.

“I used to say I’m both Chinese and Taiwanese,” said the physician, who is in his 40s. “But now I only say I’m Taiwanese, because I’m just sick of all the ill will from China.”

China is clearly sensitive to the danger of alienating Taiwanese opinion. In recent years, it has toned down military threats and war games, recognizing that the message of marry-me-or-die was stirring a backlash.

Beijing hasn’t played a big role in this election, and some analysts think that it has become more relaxed about Taiwan, confident that trade gradually will bind the island to the mainland. Last year, Taiwanese businesses invested $7.7 billion in China, the Economics Ministry says.

However, China is buying submarines, warships and jets from cash-strapped Russia. Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei think tank, sees signs that Beijing is becoming impatient again, because trade hasn’t slowed Taiwan’s creeping independence.

“The priority for Beijing is to stop independence. They put unification as a second priority,” Mr. Yang said.

What seriously irks China is Mr. Chen’s decision to hold a referendum on election day asking whether Taiwan should strengthen antimissile defenses and pursue a “peace and stability framework” with China.

Chinese leaders have grumbled loudly, fearing that other referendums will follow in which people in Taiwan will have the option of choosing independence. Beijing has managed to enlist Japan, the United States, France and South Korea to pressure Mr. Chen to abandon the vote.

In December, President Bush warned both sides against “any unilateral decision … to change the status quo,” which Taiwan took as a clear rebuke to Mr. Chen’s referendum plan. The admonishment stung Taiwan all the more because Mr. Bush delivered it while playing host to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in the Oval Office.

But Mr. Chen has shown no sign of backing down on the referendum.

One of the oddities of the relationship is the way apocalyptic scenarios coexist with booming trade. About a decade ago, Taiwanese firms began manufacturing shoes and other consumer goods in China, attracted by the cheap labor. Now, Taiwan’s world-leading chip makers are planning to move to the mainland.

Many Taiwan residents see a threat in having too much trade with China, fearing that they are becoming hostages to the mainland economy.

Would a victory for Mr. Lien help China? Not much, said Mr. Yang, because the Nationalists’ hands would be tied by the firm public consensus in Taiwan that favors self-rule.

“The Taiwanese self-determination train has already left the station,” Mr. Yang said. “What direction is it going and who’s driving, nobody knows.”

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