BEIJING -- Taiwan has abandoned the political formula that has long kept the peace with China, declaring yesterday that it will no longer adhere to the line that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are two parts of the same country.
Beijing's response was immediate and furious.
Taking a step away from the conceptual umbrella of eventual reunification between China and Taiwan that has been a basic condition of all talks between them, President Lee Teng-hui made a risky move that badly soured Taiwan's relations with China and could also worsen the strains in the troubled ties between China and the United States.
For two decades the artful political ambiguity known as the "one China" policy has held in check the potentially explosive issue of the future of Taiwan.
Both parties to the dispute formally agree that China and Taiwan are part of one country -- separated by civil war 50 years ago -- and almost all countries recognize Beijing as its legitimate capital.
But Beijing has never given up its vow to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary, and the United States has pledged to defend the island.
So Beijing has tolerated Taiwan's de facto independence, as long as the island never actually declares it and tries to rewrite the delicate political formula.
Lee, an unpredictable politician whose provocative steps in 1996 brought Taiwan to the brink of war with China and then delivered him a resounding victory in a presidential election, did just that over the weekend in an interview with the German radio station Deutsche Welle.
From now on, Lee said, Taiwan will treat contacts with China as "state-to-state" relations.
"Under such special nation-to-nation relations," he said, "there is no longer any need to declare Taiwanese independence."
Lee's sudden turnaround provoked muted response in Taiwan at first, as other politicians debated what he meant while Lee maintained a conspicuous silence.
But yesterday another senior Taiwanese official came forward to clarify what Lee's remarks meant: that Taiwan would scrap the "one China" formula that has been used as a base for all discussions with the mainland.
"This new definition reflects our disappointment over the Communists' `one-China' principle," said the official, Su Chi, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "We think the current abnormal relationship across the straits is the result of the Chinese Communists refusing to face reality."
The surprise shift outraged officials in Beijing, who accused Lee of taking "an extremely dangerous step" and implied that they could use force to prevent Taiwan from trying any new rhetorical tricks on the touchy issue of sovereignty.
"We sternly warn Lee Teng-hui and the Taiwan authorities not to underestimate the Chinese government's firm determination to uphold national sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity," said Zhu Bangzao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "Don't underestimate the courage and force of the Chinese people to oppose separatism and Taiwan independence."
There was no public indication of what prompted Lee's sudden change, though the timing suggested local politics. A presidential campaign is getting under way in Taiwan, and the stance of Lee's Nationalist Party toward the mainland will be a hot topic.
On Saturday, Taiwan's main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, nominated former Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian as its candidate to succeed Lee, whose term expires next year.
Nationalist Party supporters are expected to be split between Vice President Lien Chan, supported by Lee, and a popular former official, James Soong, who might defect to another party.
Although polls in Taiwan reflect popular support for better ties with the mainland, the Nationalist Party is eager to woo away some supporters from the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors a formal declaration of independence from China.
Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. State Department spokesman James Foley said yesterday that the American policy of "one China" remained unchanged.
"The U.S. position on Taiwan's future is also clear," Foley said. "We believe that it is a matter for the Chinese people, on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, to resolve. The United States has an abiding interest and concern that any such resolution be a peaceful one."
Yesterday's excoriations in Beijing were the harshest since 1996, when China was infuriated by Lee's political maneuvering that led to a visit to the United States, the first by a Taiwan president since Washington dropped diplomatic recognition.
China launched missiles into the ocean near Taiwan in an attempt to intimidate voters just before the presidential election in Taiwan. Instead, the panic gave Lee a decisive victory.
Pub Date: 7/13/99