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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Louder Rumbles of War

Beijing Steps Up Its Pressure on Taiwan's Leader

By Todd Crowell

AFTER A THREE-MONTH LULL, China resumed its "missile diplomacy" opposite the Taiwan Strait last week. Jet fighters screamed low in the sky, tanks rolled off landing ships and paratroopers dropped down in Fujian province opposite Taiwan. Other soldiers simulated an attack on a Chinese island held by "foreign" troops. The widely televised maneuvers, which came on the eve of legislature elections in Taiwan, may be just the start of a new and carefully orchestrated program of escalating pressure. Its purpose: to halt Taipei's perceived drift toward independence and accelerate reunification with the mainland.

According to Asiaweek's sources, the ground was laid in September. Just before a plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee, China's highest military body met to reassess its approach to Taiwan. Fundamental changes emerged from that session of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and other official organizations. They include new definitions of actions by Taiwan that might prompt the use of force. Also discussed: a refinement of Beijing's propaganda efforts toward Taiwan and a series of calibrated pressures, ranging from military demonstrations to full-scale attack, against it.

China has long said it would use force if Taiwan either declared independence or came under the sway of foreign powers. During the September meeting, President and CMC chairman Jiang Zemin suggested new trigger points. They include persistent refusal to hold reunification talks with Beijing, allowing secession to become a "mainstream belief" in Taiwan and the capture of power there by a pro-independence political party. Other conditions: Taiwan joining the United Nations, developing nuclear weapons or allowing foreign forces to station them there.

It was the Communist Party's Taiwan Affairs Committee, also chaired by Jiang, that spearheaded the bid to make the mainland's propaganda campaign more convincing. So far, it has consisted mainly of crude personal attacks against Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui in the wake of his trip to America in June. Some of the efforts may be aimed at winning over mainland Chinese themselves. Although virtually all segments of the population oppose Taiwan independence, Beijing recognizes that most have deep reservations about using force against compatriots.

After the latest exercises, insiders expect things to quiet down for a couple of months. But when campaigning for Taiwan's March presidential election gets into full swing, China is likely to resume military displays with the aim of putting off the poll or sinking Lee's candidacy. Last week's maneuvers, though they looked dramatic on TV, ranked low on Beijing's scale of confrontation. "In February, the People's Liberation Army is likely to step up its actions a distinct notch," says an insider in Beijing. "After that may come the 'harassment' of Taipei-held islands off the Fujian coast." Recent shifts in China's military posture across the Taiwan Strait also suggest that the PLA is preparing for various eventualities. Normally, the provinces nearest Taiwan fall under the jurisdiction of the Nanjing Military Region, one of seven in the country. The area includes three army groups and some 150,000 troops. Recently, a Joint Command Center was set up with headquarters in Fuzhou, Fujian's capital. Reporting directly to Beijing, it is apparently coordinating a buildup of additional aircraft as well as army, airborne and amphibious units.

During the latest maneuvers, the mainland media have called the Nanjing Military Region a "war zone." But it wasn't clear if the usage was temporary or permanent. Says a retired PLA general: "Designating Nanjing a 'war zone' does not mean we are battle-ready. We are far from ready to engage in actual combat. We are simply making preparations." Indeed, he suggests that in the coming months, saber-rattling will alternate with conciliatory gestures. China has not rejected an invitation extended by Taiwan to Li Honggui, vice-minister for family planning, to attend a seminar on the island. If the trip materializes, it would be the first by a high-ranking mainland official since relations soured. "The pendulum swings back and forth between dialogue and making preparations," says the ex-general. "Right now, showing a bit of military muscle is the order of the day."

Taiwan reacted to China's latest show of force with anger and fear. Politicians blasted Beijing for trying to interfere in local affairs and President Lee urged the island's people to "sincerely stick together." Meanwhile, Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that "there [has been] a basic and fundamental shift" in China's policy toward Taiwan since Lee Teng-hui's U.S. visit. "We have a grave situation," Lee added. "It will not go back to what it was; it can only be moderated or modulated. Clashes may occur from time to time but war is unlikely." Says a Hong Kong analyst with strong mainland connections: "The biggest danger is that Taiwan's leaders and people might dismiss China's latest moves as nothing more than bluster."

Before Lee Teng-hui's activist diplomacy and his American journey, it had been possible for both Beijing and Taipei to finesse the question of reunification. There seemed an unspoken understanding that it would happen in the natural course of events sometime in the indefinite future. Now the issue has clearly moved to the front burner. The question now is whether the two sides can defuse it before it blows up in their faces.

With reporting by Law Siu Lan/Hong Kong and David Hsieh/Beijing

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

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Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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