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POLITICS-CHINA: On Collision Course With Taiwan

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Mar 8 2007 (IPS) - An escalating feud between China and Taiwan is threatening the fragile status quo in a year fraught with political possibilities that have kept the archrivals firmly on collision course.

The Chinese Communist party, which lost the island to the Nationalist Kuomintang party in a civil war more than 50 years ago, is preparing for its all important congress in the fall that will outline the country’s blueprint for the next five years and reshuffle its political hierarchy. The goal of reunification with Taiwan, which Beijing leaders regard as a renegade province, remains high on the agenda.

In Taipei, President Chen Shui-bian is trying to drum up support for his pro-independence Democratic Progressive party before legislative elections at the end of the year. Chen – embattled by a series of corruption scandals at home and nearing the end of his presidential term – is trying to burnish his legacy by accelerating his drive towards formal independence from China.

‘’Taiwan is a country whose sovereignty lies outside the People’s Republic of China,” Chen told a pro-independence group last weekend as Chinese communist rulers in Beijing were convening their annual session of parliament.

“Taiwan wants independence, wants name rectification, wants a new constitution, and wants development,” Chen said, refuting his inaugural “four nos” pledge in 2000, one of which was not to seek formal independence.

The following day, responding to what it saw as intended provocation, Beijing fired its own verbal shots. “Whoever wants independence will become a criminal in history,” foreign minister Li Zhaoxing told reporters.

But Taiwan did not back off. Adding muscle to the President’s strident calls for independence was the announcement of a missile test, capable of striking Shanghai or Hong Kong. While the test occurred in February, it became public knowledge this week when reported by Taiwan’s ‘United Daily News.’

Chen attended the launch of the Hsuifeng (Brave Wind) 2E missiles, the report said. Taiwan’s military strategy is fundamentally defensive and relies on support from the United States which has pledged to help in the island’s defence. But reports from Taipei last year said that some of Chen’s advisers had pushed for a shift to a more offensive stance, based mainly on cruise missiles.

China’s own military build-up is cited as the reason for the proposed shift. What worries Taiwan in particular is the rapidly increasing number of mainland missiles aimed at the island. In January, Taipei said it believed that their number stood at 900.

The news of Taiwan’s missile launch emerged as Beijing announced that its military spending was to rise by 18 percent – the highest such increase in the past decade, and greater than the budget as a whole. Last year the military spending increased by 14.7 percent to reach 36.6 billion US dollars. But international experts estimate that China’s true military spending may be three times or more of the official figure.

Beijing has made no secret of its plans to modernise the country’s huge but often poorly equipped military force of more than two million so that it can extend its strategic reach and maintain pressure on Taiwan.

When a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) missile in January destroyed an obsolete Chinese weather satellite, the test was seen as a warning to the U.S. that its own satellites might be targeted in case of a conflict over the Taiwan Straits.

Chinese leaders have long threatened to use military force if the self-ruled island declares formal independence. Two years ago, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, formalised the threat by enacting an “anti-secession law”, which legitimises a military attack on Taiwan if Beijing leaders believe it is justified.

Announcing the latest rise in military spending, spokesman for the NPC Jiang Enzhu reiterated that military force remains an option in China’s quest to reunite with Taiwan. “We will use all our sincerity and efforts to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification but absolutely will not tolerate Taiwan independence.”

Washington has repeatedly criticised China’s military build-up, saying its spending was too opaque and might cause neighbouring powers like Japan and India to consider hiking their own defence spending.

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney said on a recent visit to Asia that China’s anti-satellite test in January and its military build-up were “not consistent with Beijing’s stated goal of a peaceful rise.”

But Peng Guangxian, a well-known PLA strategist, has defended the upgrading of China’s arsenal as aimed solely at boosting China’s national security. “Only Taiwan separatists and those people who have ulterior motives regarding China would feel uncomfortable about China’s advanced weapons,” Peng was quoted as saying in February.

In Taiwan, Chen’s government has been trying without success for the past several years to increase the military budget to accommodate an 18 billion dollar purchase of U.S. weapons. The Legislative Yuan, controlled by the opposition Nationalist Party, has refused to approve the funds saying the weapons package is too expensive and inappropriate for Taiwan’s needs.

But while failing to expand the military budget, Chen’s government has been successful in pushing forward its pursuit for independence. In recent months, the island has introduced new versions of history textbooks used in Taiwan’s high schools that emphasise Taiwan’s separate identity.

In addition, some of the island’s largest state-owned enterprises have been renamed to substitute the word ‘Taiwan’ for ‘China’. Last week, the Chinese Petroleum Corporation became CPC, Taiwan, while China Post Company became Taiwan Post Company.

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