More trouble in the Taiwan Strait War games: China's intimidation will go on after the election.

March 19, 1996

TAIWAN'S ELECTION Saturday will be the first free vote for a chief executive in China's long history. That probably makes mainland rulers as angry as President Lee Teng-hui's salami-slice tactics of gaining more recognition for a successful island that is only theoretically part of the "one China" still espoused by Beijing and Taipei.

For all its three million men at arms, China lacks sealift and airlift capacity to invade Taiwan, whose forces of hardly one-sixth as many are better equipped. U.S. defense leaders have been assured by their Chinese counterparts that these provocative pre-election military exercises will not lead to such an error. The cost to China in lost trade status with the U.S., lost aid from Japan, lost investment from Taiwan and lost respect everywhere would be beyond reckoning.

China will also probably avoid attempts on the heavily protected coastal islands of Quemoy and Matsu. If it is tempted to use the maneuvers of 150,000 men for aggression, the likeliest target would be a barely inhabited coastal islet. China's aging rulers understand power, military matters and trade. They do not understand democratic psychology. The attempt to intimidate Taiwan voters is backfiring.

All indications are that President Lee has been getting more popular throughout this attack on him, and that the sole opponent gaining on him is Peng Ming-min, who is more independence-minded than he. Two opposition candidates more accommodating toward Beijing are not gaining from this bluster.

But China has diminished hopes that the military demonstrations would end with the election. These can now be seen as attempts to intimidate President Lee after his victory. That at least makes sense. China and Taiwan agree that there is one China. President Lee, a native Taiwanese, adheres to that formula while attaining more actual recognition.

China and Taiwan have much to talk about. They set up diplomatic contacts in 1992, which China suspended last year to punish President Lee for visiting his alma mater, Cornell University, in New York. Sunday is not too early to resume the contacts and sort out the relationship. The U.S. agrees with the two Chinas that there is only one, predicated on peaceful agreement between the two on how to become one.

The Taiwanese are not voting with their feet but with their ballots. Beijing had better stick to the notion that the way to entice Taiwan into one big China is to keep the faith with Hong Kong, maintaining its freedoms and traditions, when taking it over next year.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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