China Warns Taiwan To Stop At 'Edge Of Precipice'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Beijing has reacted with predictable ire to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's assertions that the island state is an independent and sovereign country. China warned Shui-bian not to "lead Taiwan to disaster."

Giving Beijing's first official response, a spokesman for the Chinese cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office urged pro-independent forces in Taiwan "to immediately stop the horse at the edge of the precipice."

"The world has only one China," said Li Weiyi. "The mainland and Taiwan both belong to one China, and China's sovereignty and territorial integrity are inviolable."

He stressed that "opposing Taiwan independence" remained Beijing's consistent policy, and he warned that Chen's policies would also have a negative economic impact.

Despite the government's assertions that Chen's remarks had merely reaffirmed the status quo, Taiwan's stock market plunged Monday to its lowest level since November on fears of rising tensions with the mainland.

By early afternoon Tuesday, the market was again down 1.4 percent, while China-related shares in Hong Kong were also hit.

Finance Minister Lee Yung-san earlier urged investors not to overreact. Taiwanese businessmen have invested up to $100 billion on the mainland since the late 1980s, when relations with China began to improve.

China and Taiwan have been effectively two separate countries for half a century, since nationalists fled to the island of Formosa during a civil war against communist forces. Only a handful of nations recognize Taiwan.

Chen, who became president two years ago, said at the weekend Taiwan's 23 million people had a "basic human right" to a referendum on the island's political future.

He dismissed the notion of Taiwan coming under Beijing's rule according to the "one country, two systems" formula employed with Hong Kong and Macao. China promised the former European colonies they could retain their way of life and capitalist system for 50 years after their return to the mainland fold in 1997 and 1999.

Presidential advisor Chen Lung-chih said the comments would drive home to the international community the situation as it is in reality: Taiwan is not a part of communist China, which has never exercised authority on the island.

Public opinion surveys since 1994 have consistently shown that most Taiwanese (44 to 60 percent) prefer a continuation of the political status quo to an outright declaration of independence (9 to 28 percent). Between 15 and 26 percent of respondents over that period favored reunification with China.

With state-run Chinese media saying Chen's statements had caused "shock and confusion" in Taiwan, opposition parties and some media commentators on the island continued to attack the president Tuesday.

But Chen also won some domestic support, including that from his predecessor, former president Lee Teng-hui, who said there was no need to make a fuss over remarks which simply pointed out a long-standing fact.

Lee was himself the object of mainland fury when he spoke in 1999 of Taiwan and China having "state-to-state relations."

Chen was also praised in a Taipei Times editorial for remarks which it said had given it the first occasion in two years to be optimistic about the government's China policy.

The paper derided opposition politicians and the "pro-China press" in Taiwan, saying they were shocked by "anything that punctures the composure, that disturbs the fantasies of imperial aggrandizement of the butchers of Beijing."

Despite the support for Chen's statements, however, the editorial questioned his timing, pointing out that Taiwan's major backer, the United States, had "a rather compelling set of other concerns right now."

It also wondered whether the remarks might play into the hands of "hardliners" among those vying for leadership of Chinese political institutions in the months ahead.

'Drastic measures'

China has repeatedly warned it would use force if necessary to bring about reunification.

The official China Daily on Tuesday quoted a leading Chinese academic, Li Jiaquan, as saying no one should underestimate Beijing's determination to prevent Taiwan from breaking away.

"Drastic measures" could not be ruled out, he said, but added that force would only be used as a last resort.

Hong Kong-based Chinese papers reported Monday that China plans to hold war games along its coastline opposite Taiwan from mid-August to October.

They said the exercises' strategic target would be Taiwan, although there was no indication that the report was timed in response to Chen's comments.

Taiwan expert and author Martin Lasater said Tuesday that in his view the U.S. would not approve of Chen's strategy, but could do little about it.

If China was to respond to a formal declaration of independence with force, "the U.S. would almost have to support Taiwan's defense because of U.S. interests in East Asia," he said.

But he doubted that Washington would officially recognize an independent Taiwan, even if the Chinese armed forces were defeated.

Lasater said he thought Chen was trying to pressurize Beijing into dealing "more pragmatically and respectfully" with Taiwan, but warned that he was playing "a dangerous game."

"A referendum draws closer to the line on the sand beyond which Beijing must respond with force."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the U.S. had not changed its policy concerning China and Taiwan.

Issues between them must be resolved, and it was the concern and interest of the U.S. that that happened peacefully, he added.

White House spokesman Sean McCormack also said policy regarding Taiwan was "well-known and unchanged."

Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taipei and officially recognized China in 1979.

But the Taiwan Relations Act, passed that same year, obliges the U.S. to defend Taiwan if necessary. During a visit to Beijing earlier this year, President Bush reminded his hosts of that obligation.

See earlier story:
Taiwan's Leader: 'We Are A Sovereign Country' (Aug. 5, 2002)

E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow