China rattles its saber and threatens Taiwan

Two Chinas: Taiwan's prosperity and democracy provoke Beijing to bellicosity.

February 23, 2000

BEIJING'S new threat to Taiwan is an attempt at intimidation before the island's presidential election March 18. It is likely to boomerang as the last such effort did.

In 1996, China fired missiles to scare Taiwanese out of voting for Lee Teng-hui for president. The United States made a show of military support and Mr. Lee won Taiwan's first free presidential election. Now China threatens invasion, not only if Taiwan declares independence, but if it does not get on with negotiating unification. Mercifully, no deadline was stated.

Taiwan has always distracted Beijing. When the island thrived under capitalism while China grew poorer under communism, Beijing took the capitalist road. When Taiwan evolved from dictatorship to democracy, Beijing panicked. Undoubtedly the goal is to make China whole now that the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macao have reverted to China's sovereignty. The Nationalist Party has ruled Taiwan since its de facto independence, but under President Lee is barely recognizable. It is using its last ounce of incumbency to elect Vice President Lien Chan as Mr. Lee's successor.

James Soong, a powerful defector from the party, is one rival. Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party stands for independence, is the other, worrisome to Nationalists and Communists alike. Beijing's bumptious intimidation can only help him.

In fact, U.S. intelligence holds that Beijing lacks the capability to invade Taiwan, while developing capacity to inflict damage. A war would derail China's economic growth, the last thing it wants.

Taiwan's growing investment on the mainland increases the two Chinas' interdependence. Beijing's bellicosity may doom the prospect of permanent normal trading relations with the United States.

Whoever wins on Taiwan, the two governments must come to terms. Cooler heads should prevail. Right now, they do not.

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