China yesterday warned it may go to war to gain control over Taiwan because the island’s politicians were edging towards formal independence and the White House was taking an equivocal stand on the issue. The blunt warning, the first use of such a threat in at least three years, comes as campaigning begins on the island of 22 million people for the presidential elections in March.
President Chen Shui-bian, a supporter of independence for Taiwan before he won office in 2000, has pushed against the web of diplomatic and political constraints that have maintained the current effective autonomy for three decades since the US switched recognition to Beijing.
Last week he promised that if re-elected he would hold a referendum in December 2006 to make sweeping changes to the constitution, which has been in force since the island became the last refuge of the Kuomintang – the Chinese nationalist forces pushed out of the mainland by the communists in 1949.
China fears the referendum will turn into a vote on a declaration of independence, and remove the Taiwan political system’s formal name as the “Republic of China”, which implicitly sees Taiwan as part of a single Chinese nation.
The fears deepened when the leader of the Kuomintang opposition, Lien Chan, followed with his own referendum plan for constitutional change, though he said the Chinese nationalist title of the republic would remain..
Previously trailing Mr Lien by about 10 percentage points in opinion polls after a lacklustre presidency, Mr Chen is now neck and neck and is seen as having a good chance of retaining office for his Democratic Progressive Party.
Although US President George Bush is reported to have described Mr Chen as a “troublemaker” during a meeting with the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, in Bangkok last month, Beijing was irked when the Taiwanese leader was allowed to make several public speeches while in transit in the US recently on his way to Panama, one of 27 nations that recognise Taiwan.
Therese Shaheen, chairwoman of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy in Taipei, also stirred Chinese anger this month by stating that the Bush Administration had never said it “opposes Taiwan independence”.
The new Chinese war threat came in a statement issued by the official Xinhua news agency, quoting the vice-minister of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Wang Zaixi, and carried yesterday in official media.
“If the Taiwan authorities collude with all splittist forces to openly engage in pro-independence activities and challenge the mainland and the one-China principle, the use of force may become unavoidable,” Mr Wang said.
If the Taiwan “separatists” believed they would get protection from the US in the event of a war, they were “extremely naive”, Mr Wang said. “The Americans will protect their own national interests, but they are expected to neither protect Taiwan independence nor shed blood for Taiwan independence.”
State television quoted an unnamed senior military analyst as saying China’s People’s Liberation Army was ready to crush separatists in Taiwan.
US intelligence reports say China has about 400 ballistic missiles positioned along the Taiwan Strait to threaten a barrage in the event of an overt move to independence.
But the Chinese threats are likely to play into the hands of Taiwan’s Mr Chen. In the previous two presidential elections, belligerent rhetoric and in 1996 the test firing of missiles close to Taiwan swung many voters to candidates pushing for a separate identity for the island.