World's attention shifts, but Taiwan tensions linger Standoff with China could resurface as issue in U.S. election

April 01, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Only a week ago, China was practicing an invasion of Taiwan, a huge U.S. flotilla was looming off China's coast and Taiwan was bracing for an invasion of one of its outlying islands.

Then, in quick succession, China's military exercises ended, the U.S. fleet sailed away and Taiwan, fresh from its first democratic presidential election, heaved a sigh of relief.

Peace, it seemed, had been declared.

Or had it?

While much of the world's attention has shifted to other parts of the globe, the tensions between China and Taiwan that led to the military standoff have hardly relaxed. Rumors of a China-Taiwan summit now appear to have been exaggerated, as neither side has shown the flexibility needed for a long-term solution.

"The attention was focused on Taiwan because of the missiles and the elections," said Andrew Nien-Dzu Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taiwan-based think tank. "Both are over, but the tensions remain and really are only just beginning."

For Washington, the lingering ten- sions in East Asia could resurface as an election-year issue.

Portrayed by the White House as an example of President Clinton's foreign policy resolve, Washington's willingness to confront China may be tested again if China renews threats to invade Taiwan. Renewed military tensions could be used by Republicans as an example of how the president's foreign policy has been too soft and inadvertently encouraged challenges by China.

"It would be a miserable election-year issue," said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is in Beijing on a research trip. "Injecting China into a presidential campaign has rarely contributed to the enlightenment of the American public."

Yet tensions between China, Taiwan and, almost inevitably, the United States aren't likely to vanish in the coming months.

Analysts point to the period shortly after May 20, when democratically elected Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui is inaugurated. After being sworn in, Mr. Lee is expected to hold a national conference to advise him on China policy, then to announce new initiatives to ease tensions over Taiwan's democratization and talk of independence.

These initiatives, however, are not expected to amount to much, said Chang Wu-yue, an expert on Chinese affairs at Taipei's Tamkang University. Although Mr. Lee won a commanding victory in the March 23 vote, many of his backers were drawn from Taiwan's pro-independence camp, Dr. Chang said.

"He is very constrained by domestic issues," Dr. Chang said. "He won big by talking tough on China. Many supporters will feel betrayed if he turns around and makes significant concessions to China."

Beijing wants Taiwan, an island of 21 million people, to give up its claim to be a sovereign state and reunify with the mainland. China has regarded Taiwan as a rebel-held province since China's Nationalist government, defeated by the Communists in a civil war, took refuge there in 1949.

Show of strength

Worried that Taiwan was giving up long-standing plans for reunification, China emphasized its willingness to go to war over the issue by launching three rounds of military exercises between March 8 and March 25, including firing missiles into international waters off Taiwan's main harbors.

The exercises drew in the United States, which sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to deter a rumored Chinese invasion of Taiwan and signal U.S. support for Taiwan's emerging democracy.

In his only interview in six months, President Lee told the Wall Street Journal last week that he planned no major concessions to China.

"My basic attitude toward mainland China has not changed at all," Mr. Lee said. He blamed China for cutting off talks, firing missiles in provocation and expressing objections to Taiwanese elections. He refused to drop Taiwan's bid for a seat in the United Nations, which he called "the people's will."

He offered one potential olive branch, saying he wouldn't travel abroad this year. China views such trips as efforts to gain international recognition for Taiwan. But Mr. Lee said he would be staying at home only because he is too busy to travel.

"His lack of travel plans doesn't reflect a change in policy or a major concession," said Lu Yali of Taiwan National University. "If he thought he could gain something by traveling, he would."

On China's side, positions are equally hard.

A day after Taiwan's presidential election, some reports claimed that China had offered Taiwan a summit between top leaders. But according to officials from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no such offer was made.

"I checked my sources," said a bemused senior official at the ministry. "And there was no offer of a summit. We are prepared to talk to Taiwan if it changes its behavior. This has been our position all along."

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