The opening shots in Taiwan's March 1996 presidential election were missiles fired from mainland China into the sea between Taiwan and Japan. It was an exercise for missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, against which Taiwan and Japan have no defense. They are China's President Jiang Zemin's emphatic votes against the re-election of Lee Teng-hui as president of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Mr. Lee's candidacy was adopted by his Nationalist Party and his popularity soars with every sign of Mr. Jiang's hostility. Ostensibly, President Lee's sin is to seek greater recognition for Taiwan. He is raising the profile of the island of 21 million industrious people. China and Taiwan agree that Taiwan is a province of China, but disagree on which is its legitimate government.
But Mr. Lee's real sin in mainland Communist eyes lies deeper. He was born on Taiwan and speaks the dialect. As head of Chang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party, he cannot espouse de jure independence, yet embodies it. Worse, since rising from the vice presidency to president on the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 and winning election by parliament in 1990, he has democratized Taiwan's government. Opposition leaders went out of jail into parliament. Free elections are held, to culminate in the first popular election for president next year, for which campaigning has begun. There will be opponents favoring everything from better relations with Beijing to outright independence.
Taiwan's vigorous capitalism is the model for China adopted by the Communist modernizers of Deng Xiaoping. But Mr. Lee goes too far for them. They want to incorporate Taiwan into China, peacefully if possible, but they do not want it to infect the mainland with democracy.
Mr. Lee called on Asian neighbors to oppose saber rattling from the mainland, and was met with silence. Nobody wants a war between the two Chinas. The catch is that both need each other, with Taiwan a huge investor in China's development. Their two state oil companies have launched a joint exploration in the South China Sea.
So cool heads should prevail. But President Jiang of China, insecure as Deng Xiaoping celebrated his 91st birthday incommunicado, is appeasing military leaders of the older generation with his hard line.
The old generals won't be there much longer. Meanwhile, it is a dangerous time in China-Taiwan relations, calling for a good deal of common sense and restraint on both sides, before either does something both would regret.