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The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2000

Taiwan's Presidential Hopefuls
Unite to Defy Beijing's Threats


TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan's presidential candidates on Tuesday found rare common cause in rejecting Beijing's latest saber-rattling toward the island.

Stock markets in Taipei, Hong Kong and China fell Tuesday after Beijing warned Taiwan that it faced military attack if it continued to stall indefinitely on reunifying with the mainland. But while the threats, released in an 11,000-word cabinet report Monday, were widely seen as an attempt to scare voters and candidates into submission in next month's presidential elections in Taiwan, the result was to unleash scorn and defiance from all quarters here.

Beijing "has no right to participate in or influence our election," said Jason Hu, the campaign manager for ruling Nationalist Party candidate Lien Chan. James Soong, an independent candidate in the close race, vowed that the island "won't be intimidated." Taiwan's government also rejected Beijing's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, calling on the mainland to accept flexible terms for restarting talks between the two sides.

U.S. Condemns Threats

The U.S. on Tuesday also condemned China's latest threats. "We reject any use of force or any threat of force in this situation," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "We have repeated in both actions and words that we view any threat to Taiwan with grave concern."

Relations across the Taiwan Strait soured when Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui last July described ties between the two sides as "state-to-state." Many in Beijing saw the move as a step toward independence, and a warning to speed up the work of bringing Taiwan back into the mainland fold. The two sides have been split since China's Nationalist government lost a civil war on the mainland in 1949.

But China's efforts to cow Taiwan could backfire, much as they did during the 1996 presidential elections, when Beijing's test-firing of missiles off Taiwan's coast propelled a defiant Lee Teng-hui to a strong victory. While the mood during the electoral campaign has thus far has been friendly to Beijing -- all three candidates, who each have about 25% support in public opinion polls, say they support improved ties -- China's statements could raise the hostility factor, political analysts say.

"Beijing often puts its worst foot forward at the wrong time," says Stephen Yates, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Boost for China's Foes

The risk for Beijing is that voters will turn toward the candidate perceived as most hostile to China and best able to stand up to it: Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party's longtime stance in favor of Taiwan independence was alluded to in the cabinet report. Although Mr. Chen has backed away from his earlier support for Taiwan independence, he is still seen as the least China-friendly of the candidates. "It may give people the feeling that Chen is most apt to stand up to China," says Lin Jung-zer, a Nationalist Party legislator, of Beijing's threats. "I don't think this report helps Lien."

Mr. Chen's party wasted little time seizing on Beijing's report to its advantage. "Can you know if someone in talks will be standing up for the Chinese Communists, or for the 22 million people on Taiwan?" says Annette Lu, Mr. Chen's running mate.

Beijing's statements could also galvanize defiance among Taiwan voters, who are quick to become angry at threats from the mainland. "Our teachers also taught us to stand up to the enemy," says Taipei lawyer Nicole Lee, who says her father was so scared during China's missile tests in the 1996 presidential election that he stockpiled rice for fear of an impending attack. Ms. Lee says she voted for the pro-independence candidate then, and plans to stick with Mr. Chen now.

China's latest broadside could also complicate its relations with the U.S., where support for Taiwan is strong. The U.S. is obliged to sell defensive weapons to the island under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which also states that any effort by China "to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means" is of "grave concern" to the U.S.

The timing of Beijing's statements is also awkward for China's supporters in Washington, who are working to win congressional support for legislation connected with Beijing's effort to join the World Trade Organization. James Lilley, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who once served as U.S. ambassador to Beijing, read China's harsh rhetoric as a putdown of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot's recent efforts to talk the Chinese leaders into a more cooperative posture with the U.S. "This is a shot across Clinton's bow, a warning that he won't get any cheap foreign-policy success from them," Mr. Lilley said.

Harvey Feldman, another former U.S. diplomat working out of the Heritage Foundation, said the timing of the Taiwan white paper's release isn't likely to do Beijing any good with respect to its other interests in the U.S. "There will be many voices in the Senate who'd say, 'Hey, we should do something about the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act," " he said. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill, which urges closer U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation, by a 341-70 vote in early February, but the Senate has delayed acting on its own version.

China's belligerence also risks hurting its prospects of gaining the status of permanent normal trade relations with the U.S. However, a spokesman for Rep. Philip Crane, an Illinois Republican who heads the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said most members are likely to treat China trade separately from the issue of Taiwan's security.

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