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Sunday, April 4, 2004

Taiwan invasion scenario not so unlikely

HONG KONG -- It's unimaginable that China would ever go to war against Taiwan, right? Until recently, that's what I thought.

Why would the government of China alter strategic course, veer away from its sane game plan of prioritizing economic development for 1.3 billion people and launch some kind of military attack on Taiwan, a major investor on the mainland and the democratic darling of people in the West?

The international implications for Beijing would be staggering. It would shock an onlooking world every bit as much as last century's horrific Cultural Revolution, not to mention Tiananmen Square. China again would become, for some years at least, a pariah on the international stage.

Die-hard anticommunist Republicans in America would say I told you so. The anti-free trade Democrats now blaming China for aggravating U.S. joblessness would say there go the bad guys again. Even the worshipful French would have to duck for political cover. Thus China, assuming the success of invasion, would gain Taiwan but lose the world.

And so I used to laugh when learned scholars such as UCLA's Richard Baum would refuse to rule out the possibility of such military action. How could they be so oblivious to the primacy of economics over politics in our globalized world?

But now I have come to accept the Baum possibility: that significant forces inside China marching to a drumbeat different from that of rational economists may wind up calling the shots over Taiwan, where leader of the pro-independence Democratic People's Party President Chen Shui-bian has apparently been re-elected (subject to the recount), and unleash the first shot.

Utterly fantastic? Well, let's have a chat with the likable and thoughtful Ma Lik, one of Hong Kong's 36 representatives in the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, who reluctantly took over as chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong following recent local elections that were disastrous for his pro-Beijing party.

Some would call Ma a Communist, except that you have to wonder if there are any Communists anymore, economically speaking, in Beijing. Even in North Korea, the faith is certainly under a bit of strain. In reality, Ma swims comfortably in the pragmatic school of Hu Jintao, China's new leader, whose policy approach takes more leaves from The Wall Street Journal playbook than from The Little Red Book.

This quiet-spoken gentleman knows Beijing well, probably spends more time there than almost anyone from Hong Kong, attends plenary NPC meetings and tells me matter-of-factly that China's preparations for war, or at least for an air and sea embargo, against Chen's Taiwan are far more developed than you may think.

"I don't agree with you that (military action) is unlikely," said Ma. "Given Chen Shui-bian, it is now actually more likely." Chen's DDP toys with the notion of formal independence and often taunts the mainland about it, was not exactly Beijing's favorite in the tumultuous March 20 election.

In Beijing's eyes, Taiwan is no different from Hong Kong, a legal part of greater China. The British agreed with the mainland on that issue when, in 1997, it handed the city over under the umbrella of a new Basic Law, which Ma helped write.

But many in Taiwan do not wish to emulate Hong Kong's legally subservient status, in theory or in practice; indeed, roughly half of them voted for Chen, who increased his popular vote tally by 25 percent from the last election.

Ma says Beijing's position is that it is not theoretically opposed to electoral democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong so as long as the outcomes do not challenge Beijing's bottom-line sovereignty. The philosophy of the late leader Deng Xiaoping of "one country, two systems" was intended in part to finesse the problem of the politico-cultural chasm between Hong Kong (market-driven, entrepreneurial) and the mainland (then totally state-driven, collectivist) -- not detract from Beijing's political sovereignty.

This means that Hong Kong is not the ultimate boss of its own political body; China is.

For Beijing, therefore, the outcome of the disputed Taiwan election has obvious implications for the Hong Kong that Ma loves. What if his people want to elect a Hong Kong-style Chen, defiant of Beijing? That's why Ma can readily conjure up an invasion scenario to remove Chen and keep Taiwan and stop the rise of a Chen clone in Hong Kong.

Call it preemptive or preventive war (some other major power used that justification recently, despite U.N. Security Council lack of approval of the invasion).

"This is what the People's Liberation Army wants to do about Taiwan," he tells me candidly.

China fears that Chen is the lead domino in the dissolution of mother China. Thus, the PLA wants to "Saddamize" it. Under these circumstances, and with such historic stakes, it's easy to imagine why China would exercise the military option against Taiwan.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate

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