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U.S. Shouldn't Take Beijing's Bait : Asia: China's saber rattling is an attempt to intimidate Congress and the Taiwanese before their first direct election.

February 01, 1996|ROSS H. MUNRO | Ross H. Munro is director of the Asia program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia

During the past several weeks, Chinese officials have shaken influential American visitors to Beijing with warnings that China's military forces may attack Taiwan as early as this spring. For some visitors, Chinese officials add a veiled but startling threat: If the United States intervenes militarily to stop China from forcibly regaining its "rebel province," China is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Los Angeles.

Such shrill warnings are the classic weapons of psychological warfare--and that may be the only form of war that the Chinese are currently prepared to wage. But the question remains: Why is Beijing beating the war drums so fiercely? After all, decades have passed since China engaged in a serious and prolonged military scrap with Taiwan. Only recently have relations between the mainland and the island gone back on an apparent collision course.

What has panicked Beijing is the democratization of Taiwan, which will culminate March 23 in the first direct and democratic election of a national leader in the long history of Chinese civilization. If Taiwan's current president, Lee Teng-hui, convincingly wins that election, his status will soar among many Chinese--in Taiwan, overseas and even on the mainland--as well as among foreigners, especially Americans. Beijing already anticipates a growing clamor from the U.S. Congress for this democratic leader to pay a triumphant and all but official visit to Washington. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced that Lee Yuan-zu, Taiwan's vice president, will be allowed to make four brief stopovers in American cities in transit to Haiti next month.

China is still bitter that congressional pressure last year forced President Clinton to allow President Lee to visit his U.S. alma mater, Cornell University. So today Beijing is waging psychological war to weaken congressional support for Taiwan and pressure the Clinton administration to do likewise.

Beijing is also trying to intimidate Taiwan voters. Currently, most Taiwanese reject calls for either immediate reunification with the mainland or a provocative declaration of independence. Lee, an adroit politician, reflects that consensus, declaring his commitment to the principle of one China while trying to enhance Taiwan's presence on the world stage. But a suspicious Beijing fears--incorrectly, the evidence suggests--that Lee's ultimate goal is legal independence.

So China's leaders are trying to frighten some Taiwan voters into supporting presidential candidates who want to move toward reunification. Although Lee will undoubtedly win the March 23 election, China clearly hopes its blustering will push Lee's vote total significantly below 50%.

A convincing victory by Lee would threaten Chinese leaders in several ways. Abroad, Lee's legitimacy as the winner of an open, democratic election will compare favorably with that of the eventual victor of the nasty and largely hidden struggle to succeed the ailing Deng Xiaoping. China's leaders know such views will quickly spread on the mainland, which is no longer isolated from the world media.

In Taiwan, Lee will claim a mandate to continue his policy of postponing reunification indefinitely--a stance that particularly threatens Beijing's leaders. No longer able to claim legitimacy on the basis of discarded Marxist-Leninist theology, they've recently based their case on the you've-never-had-it-so-good argument, taking credit for unprecedented improvements in living standards. But inflation, inequality and corruption, along with a widely anticipated softening in economic growth, are undermining that stance also.

What's left is Chinese nationalism. China's insecure leaders are increasingly draping themselves in the flag. But the No.1 goal of Chinese nationalism--reunification with Taiwan--will seem more distant than ever if Lee scores a convincing victory.

Realizing that Beijing has made us a target in this war, what should the United States do? We should neither pledge to defend Taiwan regardless--an act that would encourage irresponsible political elements in Taiwan to provoke China--nor tell Taiwan it's on its own, which would give China carte blanche and trigger a collapse of confidence on the island. Instead, we should talk softly and carry both big and small sticks.

Although no one expects China to invade Taiwan, Chinese leaders have hinted they might lob a few missiles at the island or impose a partial naval or air blockade. This would leave the United States with little choice but to respond proportionately, not only because of our commitments to democratic, free-market Taiwan, but also because a failure to intervene on behalf of an old and vulnerable friend would destroy our credibility with our remaining Asian allies, who would quickly seek accommodation with Beijing.

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