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China and Taiwan Make Nice -- but Not for Real, Experts Say

The scotching of rival military exercises reflects internal politics rather than a thaw in ties, declare analysts on both sides of the strait.

September 09, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — China's recent decision to cancel a military exercise, followed a few days later by a similar announcement from Taiwan, offered the first ray of hope in months that cross-strait relations were on a modest mend.

But a closer look suggests that the moves are driven by political considerations tied to other issues, rather than any warming of ties between Taipei and Beijing, say analysts on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

"Given the lack of political trust, relations between the two sides could explode at any time," said Zhu Xianlong, a Taiwan expert at Beijing Union University. "Both sides know that, though, and don't want to go too far at a time when each faces domestic political concerns."

In China, political leaders are preoccupied with the run-up to this month's national Communist Party meeting amid ongoing speculation that former President Jiang Zemin, 78, might step aside as head of China's powerful military or otherwise lower his profile. This would pave the way for President Hu Jintao to assume full leadership.

Beijing's decision to cancel its Dongshan Island drill also could ease strains with Asian neighbors wary that China might try to expand its footprint into their backyards, including the contested Spratly Islands of Southeast Asia and islands claimed by China and Japan.

Jiang's future plans are important because he's been associated with hard-line policies toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, leading some moderates to suggest that a consolidated administration under Hu might have greater freedom to craft the cross-strait relationship in a more creative way.

Others aren't so sure. "Whether Jiang steps down or not, I don't think we'll see any real change," said Liu Junning, a political analyst with the Chinese Cultural Studies Institute in Beijing. "In China's leadership, there's a pretty unified view on Taiwan."

Taipei and Beijing have been estranged since China's civil war ended in 1949. Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China and has vowed repeatedly to use force, if necessary, to guarantee eventual unification. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian maintains his island is in effect a sovereign nation, although he has stopped short of declaring independence.

Taipei officials are watching events in Beijing carefully for signs of daylight. They see senior mainland officials speaking with two voices -- one they view as provocative and unrelenting, and the other, from a group of Beijing insiders, open to the idea of dialogue with Taiwan.

"With China's power struggle, it's too early to tell when China's Taiwan policy will be finalized," said one Taiwanese official who requested anonymity.

In Taipei, Chen has largely toned down the inflammatory language seen during his reelection campaign early this year -- rhetoric aimed at drawing a harsh response from China. Canceling Taiwan's exercise could help focus attention on his efforts to reform Taiwan's legislature, reduce the number of elections and alter the balance of power between the president and lawmakers.

Forgoing the exercise also might improve his ties with the United States, which has pressured him for months to stop provoking Beijing. "I assume the U.S. has played a role in the cancellations," said Richard Baum, director of UCLA's Center for Chinese Studies.

Tactical retreats aside, the cross-strait standoff remains deeply entrenched, with mounting fears in Beijing that Taiwan doesn't believe China will use military force should Taiwanese officials declare independence.

What Beijing sees as Chen's repeated thumbing of his nose at it has bolstered China's resolve to boost its military capability. To this end, it has been streamlining its massive, labor-intensive army in favor of a more effective, high-tech, rapid-response force.

"The mainland is seriously preparing for the worst," said Chu Shulong , a foreign policy expert at the College of International Relations in Beijing.

Taiwan -- and by extension Washington -- has further upset Beijing recently by tentatively agreeing to an $18-billion military procurement deal with the United States.

"Although the U.S. says it believes in the 'one-China' policy, it's only theoretical," said Li Jiaquan, retired head of Taiwan research with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "They continue to sell all these weapons to Taiwan."

In this environment, it has been easy for both sides to see the worst in actions taken by the opposing capital.

"Taiwan's cancellation was just playacting," said Ni Lexiong, a military analyst with the East China University of Science and Technology based in Shanghai.

"The mainland's move was probably just a smoke screen," said Andrew Yang, a military analyst at Taipei's Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a think tank, adding that China may already have achieved its military objectives from earlier drills. "I think the cancellation was part of psychological warfare aimed at deceiving the West."

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