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China Berates Taiwan for Separatist Remark

Asia: Tensions build after island's president describes rivals as two virtually equal states. Talks still scheduled.

July 13, 1999|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — China warned Taiwan on Monday that the island was "playing with fire" after the Taiwanese government apparently backed away from the "one China" policy that has governed relations between the two rivals for decades.

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei escalated over the weekend when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, in an interview with a German radio station, appeared to jettison the "one China" principle, describing Taiwan and China as two virtually equal states.

On its surface, such a statement contradicts the guiding principle of "one China" that the two governments, as well as countries around the world, including the U.S., have consistently adhered to in their vexed relationship. Observers fear that the statement may also jeopardize landmark talks, scheduled for this fall, that both sides have committed to in an effort to ease tensions.

Lee told the Deutsche Welle radio station over the weekend that China and Taiwan should cease regarding each other merely as separate "political entities"--the vague but acceptable rubric the two sides have stuck to in the past--and start treating each other as separate states.

On Monday, after puzzlement on both sides of the Taiwan Strait over what Lee meant, Taiwanese officials slightly recast--but also seemed to reinforce--what appeared to be somewhat of a departure from past positions. They said that Sino-Taiwanese relations had been tantamount to those between two separate countries since Taiwan's constitutional reforms early this decade--which abandoned Taipei's claim to be the legitimate ruler of all of China--and that China had been using the "one China" formula to hem in Taiwan and undermine its legitimacy on the world stage.

The comments touched off the usual storm of criticism from Beijing, which has considered Taiwan a renegade province since the island fell under Nationalist Party control after China's civil war of the 1940s.

"We again sternly warn Lee Teng-hui and the Taiwan authorities not to underestimate the Chinese government's firm determination to uphold the nation's sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said. "Lee Teng-hui and the Taiwan authorities must recognize the situation, rein in at the brink of the precipice and immediately halt all activities aimed at splitting the motherland."

Beijing's comments stopped short, however, of reiterating the Communist regime's longstanding warning that it would resort to military force against Taiwan if the island ever declared independence.

And the government did not announce any suspension in the planned talks, although the head of the Chinese delegation, Wang Daohan, said he was "shocked" by Lee's comments and demanded a clarification from the chief Taiwanese negotiator.

Both the timing and full import of Lee's remarks remained unclear today, although Taiwan's jockeying on the international stage has caused a stir of late, from its bid to join the World Trade Organization ahead of China to last week's scandal surrounding Papua New Guinea's decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei.

"I would want to wait a bit longer" to judge the fallout and implications of Taipei's maneuvering, one Asian-Pacific diplomat said.

"They're always pushing as much as they can," the diplomat said, referring to Taiwan's constant moves for greater recognition.

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