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Blustery Winds in Taiwan Strait

March 08, 2005

When last we looked in on the Chinese and Taiwanese, the president of the island was hinting at independence and provoking the mainland. As we rejoin the rhetoric in progress, it's the mainland talking tough about Taiwan, restating its position that the island is part of China -- although they split during the 1949 civil war -- and warning outside nations to butt out. Both sides would be better off cooling the hawkish language.

The latest heat comes from an anti-secession law expected to be passed at the current meeting of China's rubber-stamp legislature, the National People's Congress. The Chinese say it simply repeats Beijing's policy that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part. The Taiwanese say it is an attempt to provide a legal framework for a Chinese invasion of the island to reunite the two.

The dispute understandably makes outsiders, especially the United States, nervous. President Bush has promised to do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan from unprovoked aggression. But Washington depends on China to be host of the six-nation negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

The text of the proposed law will not be released until after it passes. That gives Beijing time to take account of worried outside reaction and tone down the language. On Saturday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sounded relatively moderate. He insisted, as expected, that Taiwan would never be allowed to become independent, but he also spoke of improving relations and seeking reunification through agreement, not war.

That was better than the line taken Sunday by Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who told reporters that Japanese and U.S. concerns about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait interfered in China's internal affairs.

China has been especially concerned with pro-independence statements by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian. But Chen's ruling coalition did poorly in legislative elections in December, in part a repudiation of his periodic attempts to stick a finger in Beijing's eye. Since then he has been less aggressive.

Despite the tough talk on both sides, economic ties between Taiwan, with its 23 million people, and mainland China, with its more than 1 billion, have increased with each year. This year produced another step forward when airplanes flew directly from the mainland to the island for the first time in more than 55 years. Previous flights had to stop in Hong Kong or Macao.

There are signs that both the mainland and Taiwan are trying to deemphasize the dispute over the anti-secession law. China has plenty of worries about its growing gaps between rich and poor and the increasing cost of its imported energy supplies. It should concentrate on those problems and refrain from scaring the wits out of Taiwan and nations alarmed by the threat of hostilities in a strategic part of the world.

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