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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THUNDER OUT OF CHINA

The Mainland's "Missile Diplomacy" Jolts Taiwan


IN THE TWO MONTHS SINCE TAIWAN PRESIDENT LEE TENG-HUI MADE A WATERSHED "PRIVATE" VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES, IT WAS WASHINGTON THAT BORE THE BRUNT OF CHINA'S ANGER. No longer. Last week, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) launched at least six unarmed missiles into the East China Sea in the first phase of what it said would be two months of military exercises. Five landed some 150 km north of Taipei, off Taiwan-held Pengchia islet. The move, which stunned the island, delivered a clear warning to both Lee's government and its supporters in the U.S.: Beijing would not tolerate any further bids to gain greater international recognition for Taipei. That, in China's view, would forestall its cherished goal of national reunification.

"The maneuvers were definitely a scare tactic," says a foreign-affairs official of the Chinese Communist Party. Lee, he adds, "knew he was treading on thin ice. He went very far to provoke us." When Taiwan's leader traveled all the way to Cornell University, his alma mater in New York state, the trip marked a climax to his "pragmatic diplomacy." The strategy, which also produced "private vacations" by Lee in Southeast Asia last year, sought visits by senior Taiwan officials to countries that do not formally recognize their government. Shortly after Lee's Cornell excursion, Taiwan Premier Lien Chan flew to several European capitals on "private" trips of his own.

A party historian in Beijing compares last week's events with China's 1958 shelling of Kinmen, a Taiwan-held island just 2.3 km off the mainland. Those bombardments "were never intended as a precursor to invasion," he says, though they shook the U.S. as well as Taiwan's ruler Chiang Kai-shek and his party, the Kuomintang. "It was an act to engage the KMT," adds the historian.

Taiwan responded to Beijing's recent "missile diplomacy" with both fear and loathing. As citizens shuddered, the government urged them to remain calm. It temporarily rerouted commercial flights and advised fishermen to steer clear of the PLA's target zone. Lee vowed his administration would stand firm, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) blasted Beijing for "imperialist aggression." On July 25, Taipei began its own military exercises off the island's northeast coast.

Taiwan authorities were also trying conciliation. Last week, the Finance Ministry relaxed requirements on mainland letters of credit to smooth business across the Taiwan Strait. Lee attempted to assure Beijing he was no secessionist. Said he: "Only through mutual respect will national reunification be gradually achieved."

Even so, Taipei says it intends to press ahead with pragmatic diplomacy. "We will keep doing what we have to do," said Foreign Ministry official Rock Leng. Yet some think the rhetoric masks a recognition of reality. "The government will continue with pragmatic diplomacy but at a reduced pace," says Joseph Wu, an expert on Taiwan's foreign policy. He predicts subdued lobbying for Lee's attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Japan this November. And Taipei may temporarily stop recruiting nations to recognize it, as Gambia did recently. The caution may be necessary: China's missile tests revealed a strategic weakness. Taiwan had to rely on U.S. intelligence for information about them. Its point made, Beijing announced an end to its launches on July 26.

The latest developments have made Taiwan citizens more wary of the mainland. In a newspaper poll taken days after the missile launches, 80% of respondents considered Beijing hostile. It also found that support for maintaining the island's status quo rose to 57% from 47% a month before. Business ties have suffered too. Taiwan investors in the mainland claim that authorities there have become unusually officious and "combative" of late. And last week, the island's industrial federation warned that scrutiny of investors will get tougher, especially as China embarks on a planned campaign against tax evasion. The tensions have also plunged Taiwan's stock market to its lowest level in 31 months. The chill contrasts sharply with the warmth that briefly prevailed earlier this year after Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a conciliatory proposal on reunification and offered to meet Lee.

Each side realizes that both have more to gain from friendship than conflict. "As for the Taiwan capital invested here," says the Beijing historian, "we are as much hostage to it as Taiwan is to us." On the island, many viewers called in during a television discussion among representatives of the KMT, the DPP and the New Party (a KMT splinter group) to criticize Lee for unnecessarily antagonizing the mainland. "It's time both sides lowered the level of confrontation," said New Party MP Wang Chien-shien. But whether Beijing was in a mood to listen remains to be seen.

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