Scholars in China advise Taiwan to keep quiet

A seeming signal of peace if new Taipei leader says nothing of independence

February 24, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In the diplomatic tinderbox of China's relationship with Taiwan -- where a few words could spark war -- sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

As China expanded its threat to attack Taiwan this week, two high-ranking mainland experts suggested that the island's next president could help defuse tensions by not repeating the words that heightened them in the first place. The offending words are "special state-to-state relations," implying sovereignty for Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province.

"I think on Inauguration Day the avoidance of the `two-state' theory helps improve the relationship," said Zhou Zhihuai, deputy president of the Institute of Taiwan Studies, the mainland's most authoritative organization of its kind. "We hope after the election, the relationship will have a new start."

Zhou's comments mark the first time that anyone close to the Chinese government has suggested a face-saving way out of the latest diplomatic row that began seven months ago and has raised tensions in the Taiwan Strait to their highest level in four years. In July, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui ignited Beijing's fury by declaring that Taiwan and China should negotiate their differences as political equals on a "state-to-state" basis. Until then, Taiwan had agreed to the fiction that there is "One China" to appease Beijing and keep the peace.

Beijing interpreted Lee's remarks as a stride toward independence and threatened invasion, rattling nerves from Taipei to Washington.

With less than a month left before Taiwanese elect Lee's replacement, Zhou and mainland professor Su Ge said that avoiding repetition of Lee's words could help reopen talks, which Beijing angrily put off last summer.

"If the new leadership would not repeat the `two-state' theory, then I would think there is a possibility for both sides to resume dialogue and negotiations," said Su, who serves as assistant president at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing and is closely affiliated with the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The suggestion, which Su said was his personal opinion, is in sharp contrast to China's initial, hard-line demand that Lee retract his words before talks could resume.

Su and Zhou made their comments during a week in which Beijing ratcheted up pressure for Taiwan to reunite with the mainland. On Monday, China released an 11,000-word white paper in which it threatened to attack the island if leaders there tried to postpone reunification indefinitely.

The document set no deadline, but was seen as a sign of China's growing impatience with Taipei's foot-dragging and an attempt to influence the presidential election March 18. Taiwan responded with defiance, saying that Beijing's refusal to acknowledge the island's government as an equal would only delay attempts to reunify.

"The Chinese Communists' continued denial of the existence of the Republic of China [Taiwan] can only bring more trouble to cross-strait relations and deepen tension," Lin Chong-Pin, spokesman for the Mainland Affairs Council, said at a news conference in Taipei.

Conspicuously absent from Monday's white paper was the earlier insistence that Taiwan retract or explain Lee's "state-to-state" comments. Observers say a shift to a softer position on the president's statement would fit previous patterns of Chinese diplomacy and acknowledge Taiwanese public opinion. China often makes tough demands, only to drop some of them later, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

As Election Day in Taiwan approaches, the three major presidential candidates have tried to reach out to China and reduce tensions.

Vice President Lien Chan, the ruling Nationalist Party nominee, has declined to reaffirm President Lee's position. He has said he sees no need to, because the "state-to-state" relationship is merely a reflection of reality.

Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party supports Taiwanese independence, has said he will declare independence only if China invades. He has also called for increased economic ties and promised to visit the mainland.

James Soong, an independent candidate and former Nationalist Party official, has criticized Lee's statements as "irresponsible," while defining the cross-strait relationship as "quasi-international." He has proposed a 30-year, nonaggression pact between Taiwan and the mainland.

The race remains too close to call.

The debate over Lee's words is part of an ongoing exercise in semantics that has global implications because of the parties involved, the principles at stake and the potential for catastrophe.

As Taiwanese prepared for their first direct presidential election four years ago, China fired missiles nearby to intimidate voters. President Clinton answered by sending two aircraft carriers to the region, raising the risk of conflict in the strait to a level not seen in decades.

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