BEIJING -- As the campaign for the presidency opened yesterday in Taiwan, Beijing turned up the heat on its island neighbor by warning that continued postponement of reunification could lead to war.
"A serious crisis exists in the situation of the Taiwan Straits," said the State Council, China's Cabinet, in an 11,000-word white paper. "If the Taiwan authorities refuse indefinitely the peaceful settlement of the Cross-Straits reunification through negotiations, the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force."
Beijing often has said it would invade Taiwan if the island formally declared independence, but yesterday's statements marked the first time the mainland had threatened to attack because of foot-dragging. The warning appeared to be designed to push the presidential candidates to make more conciliatory gestures toward China in the weeks before the March 18 election.
Beijing has viewed Taiwan as a rebel province since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled there in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war. Taiwan, though, is a de facto independent country with a strong economy and a boisterous democracy. Most Taiwanese support the status quo, in large part because they fear that a formal declaration of independence would provoke war.
China's latest threat comes nearly four years after Beijing fired missiles toward the island as Taiwan prepared for its first direct presidential election. The show of military muscle was aimed at intimidating Taiwanese voters. Presi dent Clinton responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the region.
CIA Director George J. Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee this month that there was a "high potential" for another military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait this year. Beijing, though, appears to be postponing a decision on military action until after the election and inauguration, when a new president will have an opportunity to state his policy toward the mainland.
Last weekend, State Department officials met with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing to discuss sensitive subjects related to Taiwan, including U.S. weapons sales to the island and plans for including it in an umbrella missile defense system, which China vehemently opposes. U.S. officials said discussions made it clear that China has "a very sophisticated understanding" of Taiwan electoral politics.
"They are really scrutinizing it very closely," an official said.
Cross-strait relations had been improving until July, when Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui effectively scrapped the "One China" policy, a legal fiction that had helped maintain peace in the region for decades.
Lee's declaration that Taiwan and China enjoy "special state-to-state" relations infuriated Beijing, which saw the comments as a sign of continued movement toward independence.
The mainland responded by canceling unofficial talks between the two sides and again threatening annihilation.
Yesterday's white paper lashed out at Lee, who will leave the presidency this spring.
"Lee Teng-hui has become the general representative of Taiwan's separatist forces, a saboteur of the stability in the Taiwan Straits, a stumbling-block preventing the development of relations between China and the United States, and a troublemaker for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region," it said.
In recent weeks, the three major presidential candidates have tried to soften their stances toward China to appeal to nervous voters and foster better relations.
Vice President Lien Chan, a member of the ruling Nationalist Party, has offered to set up cross-strait economic and trading zones. He also has declined to repeat Lee's "state-to-state" comments.
Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors independence, has offered to remove restrictions on direct air, shipping and communication links with the mainland. Independent candidate James Soong has proposed a 30-year nonaggression pact.
Polls have found the three-way race to be a dead heat, with each candidate garnering about 25 percent of the vote. The remaining 25 percent are undecided.