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What really is China's bottom line?
Paul Lin
1/28/2004

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China has always claimed that it will start a war if Taiwan crosses its bottom line on the cross-strait issue. We must therefore ask what "crossing the bottom line" means. The question of whether holding a referendum would be considered crossing that line has become the focus of everyone's attention.

Condemnations of Taiwanese independence by Chinese government officials are a dime a dozen, but no one can explain what "Taiwanese independence" really means. If we tried to establish a definition based on official documents, we would have to use China's white paper on the "one China" principle and the Taiwan issue published in 2000.

This document specifies China's bottom line on the Taiwanese independence issue in this way: "However, if a grave turn of events occurs leading to the separation of Taiwan from China in any name, or if Taiwan is invaded and occupied by foreign countries, or if the Taiwan [sic] authorities refuse, sine die, the peaceful settlement of cross-strait reunification through negotiations, then the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force, to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and fulfill the great cause of reunification."

John Tkacik, a research fellow at the US-based Heritage Foundation, who participated in a symposium discussing the effects of Taiwan's referendum on the triangular US-Japan-Taiwan relationship, also talked about where China draws its line. He said that Taiwan may have already crossed it by electing Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000.

Prior to that, former president Lee Teng-hui also crossed the line with his special state-to-state model.

Tkacik's two examples can indeed be seen as examples of overstepping the boundaries set by the aforementioned "separation of Taiwan from China." We can even trace earlier transgressions. In 1995, when Lee visited Cornell University, he mentioned the Republic of China several times in a speech. This was seen as an attempt at establishing two Chinas, and was followed by a first wave of propaganda attacks and military threats.

Next, the first direct presidential election in 1996 further confirmed that Taiwan was a democratic country where sovereignty rests with the people, and this incited a second wave of propaganda attacks and military threats from China. But the reality is that there is one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait. It's just that China won't allow Taiwan a voice in the international arena.

But China did not start a war due to these incidents, even after issuing a warning that electing the pro-independence Chen to the presidency would "mean war." The implication is that this is not where China draws its bottom line, or that the bottom line can be redrawn depending on policy requirements. And not even China can define the meaning of the expression "sine die" used in "if the Taiwan authorities refuse, sine die, the peaceful settlement of cross-Straits reunification through negotiations."

Chinese academic Zhu Xianlong recently published an article discussing where the bottom line is drawn on the Taiwan independence issue. Crossing the line involves becoming an independent country, writing a new constitution, changing the national title, flag, anthem and territory, holding corresponding referendums, or holding referendums on participation in government-level international organizations. It also includes Taiwanese military provocations, Taiwanese development of weapons of mass destruction, Taiwanese internal unrest and foreign invasion of Taiwan.

The meaning of all this just keeps getting more confused. What would happen if, for example, Taiwan were to change only the national anthem and flag, but not the nation's title? How should internal unrest be defined? Apart from clarifying China's lack of a clear bottom line, the gray area also leaves Taiwan with considerable room to maneuver.

The referendum issue was also mentioned in the white paper, which stated that "We firmly oppose changing Taiwan's status as a part of China by referendum." However, the March 20 referendum is only being held to oppose the missiles China is aiming at Taiwan. And, if anything, China's missile threat simply proves that Taiwan is not part of China.

Beijing's English-language newspaper, the China Daily, has recently reported that Wang Zaixi, deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office under China's State Council, wants Chen to stop playing with fire. He also said that the next three months will decide whether peace and stability will continue in the Taiwan Strait. Some people in the Chinese army have issued similar threats. If these threats aren't simply a matter of misjudging Taiwan's position, then they might be deliberate attempts at creating more tension in the Taiwan Strait, thus aiding the campaign of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP).

It might also be intended to mislead the US. Unfortunately, the US also believes that something very serious has occurred in Taiwan, and that is the reason why US President George W. Bush spoke out.

If Taiwan really wants to declare independence under another name, now is not the right time.

Taiwan's politicians aren't that stupid -- the US is busy with the war on terror and does not have the power to deal with the East.

Besides, the US needs China's help -- or at least its continued neutrality. The two nations are also in the middle of an economic honeymoon.

But unless this propitious period in the Sino-US relationship can be sustained over the long term, and unless China's economy continues to develop and remain socially stable, the people of Taiwan, long oppressed and bullied by China, will not miss the opportunity to cross China's bottom line once something major happens there. The initiative therefore in fact lies with China itself.

The problems experienced by China as a result of the current development of Taiwan's democracy movement should actually be an opportunity for the US to use Taiwan to apply pressure on China, instead of an opportunity for China to blackmail the US.

* Paul Lin is a commentator based in New York.

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