That Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan had passed a watered-down version of the Law on Referendum on November 27 has hardly brought a respite to the looming cross-Straits crisis. The day before, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities had warned that there would be a “strong response” if Taipei were to approve legislation authorizing plebiscites on issues of statehood including changing the name, flag and sovereignty status of the self-ruled island. Since the statute passed by the Legislative Yuan was based on the mild version of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People’s First Party (PFP) – that issues affecting sovereignty and statehood could not be voted upon – there has as yet been no tough reaction from Beijing.
However, the new law carries a so-called “defensive referendum” clause, which permits the president to initiate a plebiscite on sovereignty matters should the island be “threatened by external forces.” And President Chen Shui-bian, also Chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), lost no time in proclaiming on November 29 that he would do just that on March 20, 2004, the day of the presidential polls. Chen cited the hundreds of mainland missiles pointed at Taiwan as evidence of an impending threat. At least from Beijing’s perspective, Chen’s aggressiveness has belied the optimistic reading that the Taiwan president’s recent statements about referenda – as well as changing the Taiwan Constitution to reflect the island’s full statehood status – were just electioneering gimmicks.
Moreover, Chen, who until two months ago was behind the KMT’s Lien Chan in opinion polls, seems to have pulled ahead thanks to his successful playing of the separatism and referendum cards. And even if he were to postpone holding a plebiscite on the sovereignty issue, the charismatic DPP chief would be in a good position to do so in the year or so after winning the election.
In the past month, President Hu Jintao and his closest ally, Premier Wen Jiabao, have chaired marathon sessions of advisers and experts on Taiwan on how to deal with the cross-Straits imbroglio. If handled badly, this most serious crisis in the one-year-old “Hu-Wen administration” could not only spoil the generally favorable impression that the Fourth Generation leaders have established for themselves but also upset the delicate factional balance within the CCP. President Hu is the Head of both the CCP’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LFGA) and Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs, while Wen is No. 2 on the LGFA. A failure on the Taiwan front could cost Hu the status of “core” of the Fourth Generation leadership. According to sources close to Beijing’s diplomatic establishment, the Hu-Wen team has mapped out a multi-pronged approach to deal with Chen and fellow “splittists.”
Firstly, it is unlikely that the CCP leadership would repeat the missile drills and other war games they unleashed in the run-up to the Taiwan presidential elections of 1996 and 2000. The saber rattling merely delivered more votes to then president Lee Teng-hui in 1996, and to Chen in 2000. However, Beijing would step up the psychological warfare – on both Taiwan and the U.S. – by reiterating that the military option had hardly been abandoned. This is despite the fact that owing to the civilian leadership’s tighter control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the generals have largely kept mum over Taiwan.
In an interview with the Washington Post last month, Wen said China would “pay any price to safeguard national unity.” The 61-year-old head of government did not specify what was up Beijing’s sleeves. However, Chinese sources said Wen was referring to three types of sacrifices that Beijing would be willing to sustain to get back Taiwan: casualties and other damage in the course of a “liberation warfare”; massive setback to the economy, particularly along the eastern coast; and international boycott of China and Chinese products, including the boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Despite the apparent silence of the generals, there are indications that the PLA has been flexing its muscles. For example, a Ming-class submarine was dispatched to keep an eye on recent U.S.-Japan naval exercises in the Sea of Japan. There are also reports that the PLA has added two more missile brigades to bases close to the Taiwan Strait, which already boast some 500 short- and medium-range missiles. And various mainland Chinese websites have reported that production of missiles and related hardware had increased since the summer.
Secondly, Beijing is pulling out the stops to persuade the U.S. to rein in Chen. Much was at stake in Premier Wen’s talks with Bush and other senior officials during his December 7 to 10 visit to the U.S. During Wen’s meeting with Bush at the White House, the Chinese leader stressed that it was in the best interest of both countries for Washington to halt the DPP’s “creeping independence.” The premier argued that given Beijing’s determination to use the military option should the island declare formal independence, Washington would not want U.S. forces to be bogged down in the Taiwan Strait quagmire.
Moreover, Wen played up the “North Korea in exchange for Taiwan” theory: that in return for China exerting pressure on its ally North Korea to wind down the latter’s nuclear program, Beijing expects Washington to put a damper on Chen’s separatist agenda. According to a Beijing-based Asian diplomat, Beijing has by and large demonstrated a “cooperative spirit” regarding the U.S. war on terrorism. “The Chinese have not put up obstacles regarding American action in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the diplomat said. “They certainly expect Washington to reciprocate the good will by being more forthcoming on the Taiwan issue.”
Chinese sources familiar with preparation work for Wen’s visit said at the very least, Beijing expected Bush to voice “clear-cut opposition” to Taiwan independence – as well as to Taipei proceeding with sovereignty-related referenda or constitutional changes. All along, Washington has only indicated it is “not supportive” of Taiwan separatism; nor has it expressed unambiguous opposition to referenda and constitutional changes in Taiwan.
Thirdly, Beijing will put more resources towards throttling Taipei’s international breathing space. Chinese overseas embassies have been instructed to persuade their host governments to not only reiterate the one China policy but put this into better practice by, for example, curtailing the visits of senior Taiwan officials. Overseas-based Chinese diplomats will also inform their hosts of Beijing’s determination to use whatever means – including the “military option” — to combat Taiwan separatism.
In light of widespread reports that if re-elected next March, Chen may take advantage of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing to declare formal independence, Chinese diplomats stress that fear of an international boycott of the Games would not hold China back. As Beijing-based Taiwan expert Xu Bodong pointed out last month, Beijing “will not swallow the bitter fruit [of Taiwan independence] just because of the Olympics.” Diplomatic sources said Beijing had a special message for Asian countries who are U.S. allies: that they should not provide bases for U.S. aircraft and naval vessels that may be used to “interfere” with China’s crusade against the “splittists.”
Apart from the “sacred” issue of national reunification, the Hu administration has domestic reasons to defuse the Taiwan Strait crisis as soon as possible. Taiwan could become a factor in the factional struggle between the Hu-Wen team and the Shanghai Faction led by ex-president Jiang Zemin. Hu as well as a fairly large number of influential party elders including Song Ping, Wan Li, and Qiao Shi, are putting pressure on Jiang to retire from his last remaining post of Central Military Commission Chairman by the autumn of 2004 at the latest. However, a Taiwan Strait crisis would give the CMC Chairman a god-sent pretext to tarry on. After all, Jiang had until early this year played a key role in Taiwan policymaking for a decade or so. And Fourth Generation leaders had at the 16th Party Congress of November 2002 pledged to consult Jiang over major matters of state, particularly foreign and reunification policies.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.