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China Ratchets Up the Rhetoric on Taiwan

February 10, 1996

BEIJING (AP) _ It seemed a curious but apparently harmless start to the Year of the Pig a year ago _ President Jiang Zemin making an overture to the ``renegades″ in Taiwan during his Chinese New Year’s speech.

Instead, the seemingly friendly call for reunification marked the start of a year of escalating tensions that have pushed the rival governments on opposite sides of the narrow Taiwan Straits further apart _ some fear to the brink of war.

Relations have known worse times since the Nationalists fled the mainland to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the Communists in 1949. Taiwan’s government only recently stopped referring to the Beijing regime as ``red bandits.″

But domestic politics on both sides now make Beijing’s bluster more alarming than usual.

U.S. intelligence officials report signs that China is preparing mammoth war games sometime in the next two months. The maneuvers are seen as an attempt to discourage Taiwan voters in March elections from supporting President Lee Teng-hui’s efforts to win more diplomatic recognition for his island state.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Saturday there were no signs that an exercise had begun, although it said China had sent troops to its southeast coast, facing Taiwan.

The Chinese reportedly have indicated they might stage a missile attack on Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, if Taipei does not stop what they see as a drift toward declaring formal independence.

Last summer, when Washington granted Lee a visa to visit his American alma mater, Taiwan took it as a triumph in efforts to raise its international profile. China protested by test-firing missiles near Taiwan waters.

Yet politics aside, ties are at their closest since 1949. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese travel to the mainland for business or pleasure. There is talk of fully opening shipping, postal and telephone links. And in his New Year’s speech last year, Jiang extended a neighborly reassurance that he believed Chinese would never fight their Chinese brothers.

On Saturday, Lee vowed to seek peace and reconciliation with China.

``People on both sides of the Taiwan Straits wish to end the hostile state and foster a peaceful environment under which we can develop mutually beneficial relations,″ he told thousands of supporters at a campaign rally in Taipei ahead of March 23 presidential elections.

But those developments have been overshadowed by Beijing’s insistence it has the right to use force to retake Taiwan, and by its determination to show it can do it.

Lee’s push for a higher diplomatic profile has won him support at home. But each time his government scores a coup against Beijing’s campaign to keep the island isolated diplomatically, the Chinese side responds with outrage.

China’s visceral reactions reflect its obsession with exerting sovereignty over all territories it has claimed in the past: Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Tibet and even the South China Sea, which has not been China’s domain for centuries, if it ever was.

The cause of returning Taiwan to the motherland is also very popular among the Chinese public _ and within the military, whose support Jiang Zemin needs once his patron, 91-year-old senior leader Deng Xiaoping, passes from the scene.

On Taiwan’s side, diplomatic recognition is also very popular. But the prospect of war _ or the economic uncertainty engendered by war talk _ definitely is not. So Lee is having to walk a precarious line as he campaigns to win another term as president in the March election.

Analysts are divided over whether China would actually attack. And they are just as divided over whether the Chinese army could defeat the smaller but well-equipped Taiwanese military.

``That’s a really huge gamble,″ said Ben Ostrov, a professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an expert on the Chinese military. ``And they know that at best they would win a Pyrrhic victory, for after a fight to the end, what would there be worth having?″

But some people believe China might risk an attack, if not an all-out invasion, if Taiwan went too far in Beijing’s eyes.

They note that the Chinese leadership is alarmed not just by Taiwan’s rebelliousness, but also by what they believe to be U.S. moves to curb the rise of an increasingly prosperous and powerful China.

The United States is also in a quandary. It cannot ignore a threat to democratic, Western-aligned Taiwan, but does not want to jeopardize its stake in the Chinese economy. Still, it cannot appear to be weak when it is Asia’s sole guarantor of the peace.

So Washington has opted for ambiguity. It sent the aircraft carrier Nimitz through the Taiwan Straits in December, but insisted the reason was solely the weather. When asked what Washington would do if war broke out, officials reply: ``We don’t know,″ hoping that this will suffice to make China weigh its moves very carefully.

``Eventually, time will take care of this and they’ll decide on the appropriate resolution,″ President Clinton said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, said Thursday that the United States was fanning tensions by issuing visas to Taiwan officials.

Shen also said that if Washington wanted to keep the peace it should stop selling ``large amounts of sophisticated weapons″ to Taiwan and keep the relationship with Taipei unofficial.

He stopped short of saying China was ready to attack, but outlined two scenarios that might provoke Beijing to ``non-peaceful means″: a foreign intervention in Taiwan, or a Taiwanese declaration of independence.

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