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Taiwan's strait.

The day China began to let loose with its latest round of missile tests, one of Taiwan's loneliest roads suddenly saw an unprecedented traffic jam. The twisty track up to San Tiao Chiao lighthouse backed up bumper to bumper with motorcycles, taxis, V.I.P. motorcades and TV mobile crew vans. The bleak headland is the nearest point on Taiwan to the targeted splash site for China's M-9 missiles.

That made it a perfect picnic spot for dozens of day-trippers, who seemed signally unfazed by China's bid to intimidate them on the eve of the island's presidential elections. They came to enjoy the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air. Not much of a show, as it turned out: A lone M-9 fell too far offshore to see.

Still, a steady stream of politicians trooped up to the lighthouse to glad-hand the crowds and cop a soundbite advocating solidarity under fire. Candidates from all three opposition tickets showed up in person. President Lee Teng-hui didn't need to. His Trumanesque visage and Churchillian rhetoric command all the airtime they need.

On March 23--unless the vote is pre-empted by outright war or other events--Taiwanese will almost certainly choose Lee as the first popularly elected head of state in 5,000 years of Han history. His margin of support, pegged at 51 percent a month before the election, could pick up another 6 to 8 percentage points by voting day, pollsters predict, thanks to the mainland threats.

Lest people vote any differently with their dollars, Lee's central bank has drawn down nearly 10 percent of its foreign exchange reserves to defend the currency. That leaves a "mere" $90 billion, still the world's second-highest hard currency trove, half of which is held in U.S. government securities. Capital flight has drained about $8 billion worth of deposits out of the money supply since the first Chinese "exercise" this past summer.

Stock prices continue to slump, but proportionally less than before. Part of the credit for stemming the decline may go to the government's new $7.7 billion stock defense fund. But mostly it's that investors have become accustomed to mainland threats, according to Chemical Bank branch manager Christian Murck, president of the local American Chamber of Commerce: "Beijing now reaps fewer bucks for each bang." So far, none of his multinational clients have gotten cold feet about their investments here, Murck claims.

Some optimists even look forward to a "peace dividend" after the election, when they expect Taiwan and China to resume their long-stalled reunification talks. Research manager Dirk Bennett of Taipei's International Investment Trust reports that "bottom-fishers" are now snapping up New York-listed closed-end Taiwan funds at an 8 to 10 percent premium over their net asset value.

Betting on peace could prove risky, however, warns defense analyst Yang Nian-dzu at Taipei's Center for Advanced Policy Studies. Recently returned from a visit to Beijing, he found his counterparts in mainland think tanks geared up for a sustained war of nerves. The Chinese military--which holds the swing vote in Beijing's ongoing succession struggle--views cross-straits rivalry as a life-and-death contest that is now entering its endgame.

At the same time, Yang concedes, in some key aspects of security Taiwan is weaker now than it will be in a few years. With tacit U.S. encouragement, Taipei has gone on a buying spree in the arms bazaars. By the year 2000, it will have finished taking delivery of all the loot it has ordered: F-16s and French Mirage fighters, attack helicopters, Patriot anti-missile missiles, Knox, Perry and Lafayette frigates, advanced warning radar aircraft and more. With these in place, Taiwan could enjoy a commanding advantage in the straits for anything short of nuclear war.

Why should China wait around for all this ordnance to arrive? Or for Taiwan to recruit and train the personnel to use it? Military prestige on the island is at an ebb since the lifting of martial law a decade ago. Draftees aside, Taiwan's professional soldiery are largely undereducated and underpaid "mainlanders," descendants of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated legions from the Chinese civil war. In a few years, the military will have completed its transformation from a partisan force of the Nationalist Party (the K.M.T.) into a modern national army. Intensive recruitment and upgraded pay will help, but until then, morale could remain a problem.

China might be tempted to use this window of opportunity to step up pressure as a "preventive reaction strike" against Taiwan's military renovation. Beijing gambles that Washington would never risk American lives in an Asian war in an election year--and indeed, President Clinton's posture has been intentionally ambiguous. Nor would Japan's weak ruling coalition lend logistical support in the wake of the Okinawa rape case.

An outright amphibious assault on Taiwan looks beyond China's reach, according to a diplomatic source at one of the elaborate crypto-embassies here, but a naval blockade or even a cautionary missile strike might be feasible: "The point would be to wring out of Taipei such concessions as direct trade and transport links, abandonment of Taiwan's bid for enhanced diplomatic recognition, even some sort of reunification timetable."

Disproving neo-authoritarian nostrums about inbred Confucian docility, Taiwan has taken to democracy with aplomb. Lee, an ethnic Taiwanese handpicked as successor to the Chiang dynasty, has confounded his sponsors by ushering in sweeping institutional change. Opposition pressure set the pace of reform and provided Lee a useful lever to sideline his conservative K.M.T. opponents. In the current race, Lee and the pro-independence opposition vie for credit for Taiwan's democratization. Ousted K.M.T. mossbacks blame the president for highhandedly purging party ranks and inviting China's ire.

Still, the 73-year-old Lee looks like a shoo-in. So most of the other players are using the current election to jockey for advantage in upcoming parliamentary polls or the next presidential race, in 2000. Younger politicians now scramble to stake out positions on issues like clean government, education reform, the environment, gender equality, even aboriginal rights. The shift to issue-based politics signals a coming of age.

For decades now political dialogue in Taiwan has been stuck on the question of how much popular participation should be allowed--elections about elections rather than about issues. Voters welcome the upcoming poll as one last threshold to be crossed on the way to Taiwan's general franchise: the override of China's military veto. But to make that verdict stick could require a lot more sustained U.S. diplomatic and military support than American electoral politics might allow.
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Title Annotation:tensions between Taiwan and China
Author:Kaye, Lincoln
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:1086
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