As Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui took off on a victory lap around the island's provinces, his aides set in motion what is clearly a preconceived programme of reconciliation with China.
Premier Lien Chan, Lee's vice-presidential running mate, played Taiwan's first card on March 23, stating that Taipei was seriously considering the question of signing a peace treaty. He said Taiwan wanted to start negotiations immediately to pave the way for a bilateral summit on the future of an island that China considers a renegade province of its own. Lien's overture coincided with a softer tone from Beijing, which held out the prospect of talks and refrained from its customary criticism of Lee in an official press report on the 73-year-old's election win with 54 per cent of the popular vote. Analysts said the victory for a man Beijing has called a dictator, a 'schemer' and a 'double dealer' was a riposte to recent weeks of Chinese war games close to Taiwan that were intended to turn voters away from Lee.
Lee aide and provincial governor James Soong made the next move in the programme, indicating a reunification timetable of four years, so long as Beijing agrees to presidential elections embracing both China and Taiwan. "We want to tell the Communist Party that China will reunify very soon," Soong said. While his comments differed little from Taipei's long-held tenet that China could reunify only under a democratic system, it was the first time a schedule had been officially proposed.
This drew a quick rejoinder from the mainland. Said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang: "The one country, two systems formula is the best and most feasible solution to reunification. We expect Taiwanese authorities to give us a positive response in this regard." China has made it clear, since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, that it does not see western-style democracy as an option. Also, any moves on Taiwan's part towards independence could alienate the armed forces from the communist leadership.
The rejoinder did not stop Lee from repeating his policy of seeking reunification with China the same day. "The door to cross-straits negotiations is always open. National reunification is the goal laid down by the government and the people of the Republic of China," he told visiting Canadian parliamentarians. "But the reuni-fication has to be achieved in freedom, democracy and economic prosperity. This is the wish of all Chinese."
While the western media has played up Lee's political rhetoric against the mainland, there was never a question about his reunification policy. Along with a majority of the population, Lee strongly favours eventual reunification, but differs with China on the principles and the mechanisms of that act.
Commentators say Lee is also single-minded, some say to a fault, in his drive to break Taiwan out of its diplomatic isolation—the very policy which infuriates communist leadership in Beijing.
It was his trip to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in June 1995, which made China start its menacing war games and verbal attacks. Beijing insists Taiwan is not entitled to foreign relations and saw the Cornell trip—which drew a blaze of publicity—as a move towards establishing a greater international role for Taiwan.
On its part, the US sees Taiwan and Japan as vital to its strategic interests in the western Pacific. Also, it has security and treaty obligations to Taiwan which have to be ful-filled. Besides, President Bill Clinton would like to be seen as the protector of American interests abroad in an election year.
In Beijing, deputy executive chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, Tang Shubei, said China would not cease its struggle against Taiwan's independence. Tang, also a member of the preparatory committee for the establishment of the post-1997 Hong Kong government, said China would have a dialogue with the Taiwan president.
But all this will only become a reality when the Taiwanese leader is able to demonstrate that he has returned to the 'one China' principle. "Anyway, we have delivered the message to the people in Taiwan that independence is unacceptable and an attempt to make two Chinas is out of the question," Tang said. "To counter the activities of Taiwan's independence and secession from China, we have to struggle against Lee. This struggle will not end." These and other such statements from Chinese leaders are clearly meant to emphasise the principles of "one country, two systems", under which China hopes to reintegrate both Hong Kong and the Portuguese colony of Macao. The system envisages a situation where economic policies differ but political leadership is acknowledged to be from the Communist Party.
The question now is whether or not Taiwan would want to reintegrate under a communist political leadership. Analysts say that the best option for Lee would be to continue the status quo the island enjoyed with China prior to his US visit last year and attempt to bridge the communication gap through increased trade and other direct links, something he has already said he would wish to pursue. Says a senior Taiwan academic: "There are indications that Lee increased his vitriolic attacks against China following a secret meeting in the US between a Taiwan representative and a top Chinese government official, just days before the election. There is the possibility here that he was given an assurance there would be no invasion as such. Now that he has achieved this, there is obviously a period of cooling off that has to be observed before concrete negotiations can start."
Yet, amidst all these positive signals, rhetoric across the Taiwan Straits has yet to calm the troubled waters as the Chinese air force played up its combat effectiveness through the state-run media on March 26.
Beijing's official Xinhua News Agency released a report praising the 'unprecedented progress' that had been made in upgrading and modernising the Chinese air force. "Historic records have been broken; 74 per cent of the pilots in the People's Liberation Army air force can fly under all weather conditions and another 95 per cent of the battle groups have become A-grade," Xinhua quoted unnamed sources as saying.
Political analysts said the rhetoric could be part of Beijing's plans to maintain its intimidation of Taiwan, even after calling off military exercises on March 25. It seems the chess game has only just begun.