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Olympic torch relay fuels China-Taiwan tension

The Baltimore Sun

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- When Beijing announced the route the Olympic flame will travel from Greece to China ahead of the 2008 Summer Games, officials dubbed the 85,000-mile odyssey a "journey of harmony."

But for Taiwan, an island that has ruled itself for almost 60 years but which Beijing claims as a renegade province, the trip may underscore a legacy of distrust and tension between the rival governments.

Ever since Beijing announced the route in April, declaring that the torch would travel from Vietnam to Taipei, Taiwan's capital, and then to Chinese-controlled Hong Kong, Taipei and Beijing have traded rhetorical blows.

Taiwan may boycott the relay, an act that could heighten tensions between the heavily armed governments in the run-up to the Olympics.

If Taiwan accepted the torch relay route Beijing had proposed, "the implication is that Taiwan is part of China ... but we believe we are an independent nation," said Lee Kao-hsiang, deputy minister of Taiwan's National Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. "If they don't change the route, we will say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"

The standoff comes at a sensitive time in relations across the Taiwan Strait. While Taiwan and China have been estranged since the end of China's civil war in 1949, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has used his two terms in office to distance the island from its powerful neighbor.

By increasing teaching about Taiwanese history and playing down Chinese history in public schools, Chen has sought to promote an independent Taiwanese identity.

Taipei has also carried out a widespread campaign to replace China with Taiwan in the names of government offices and state-owned companies. One of the most recent switches happened in February, when Taiwan's government changed the name of the postal service from Chunghwa Post, which uses the Chinese word for China, to Taiwan Post.

To China, the moves have smacked of separatism, and Beijing has warned repeatedly that if Taipei declares independence, it will attack the island. In 2005, Beijing passed a law giving China legal grounds to invade Taiwan if Taipei attempts to gain independent statehood.

The move angered Washington, which has promised to protect Taiwan and fears upsetting the precarious status quo.

The torch relay is the latest in a long string of issues that Beijing and Taipei have used to promote their political agendas, said Phil Deans, a professor of international affairs at Temple University's Tokyo Campus.

"For Beijing, it's a very clear demonstration that the torch is going to Taiwan because Taiwan is part of China," he said. "For Taipei, [refusing the torch] is a way to say that they are sovereign."

The torch relay dispute was touched off publicly when Liu Qi, the head of Beijing's Olympic Organizing Committee, announced in April that the torch would pass from Ho Chi Minh City to Taipei and then to the Chinese-held enclaves of Hong Kong and Macau before entering China's provinces.

In theory, the route would allow Taiwan to claim it is part of the international leg, but Taipei reacted sharply: Less than two hours after Beijing's announcement, Tsai Chen-wei, chairman of Taiwan's Olympic Committee, declared that the island would not participate in the torch relay.

"This route is a domestic route that constitutes an attempt to downgrade our sovereignty," Tsai said. "It is something the government and people cannot accept."

The next day, officials from the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee publicized a letter they said showed Taipei had previously agreed to the route, prompting Taiwanese officials to retort that the way Beijing announced the route had broken the deal.

"In the announcement, the Beijing government said the domestic route would start in Taipei," said Lai I-chung, director of an office managing affairs with China for the Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan's ruling political body. "We believe it had been politically tainted."

The rhetorical Cold War has raised concerns in Taipei that Beijing may bully Taiwan during next year's Games.

Under rules determined by the International Olympic Committee in 1979, Taiwan calls itself "Chinese Taipei" rather than the Republic of China, its official name, during Olympic events. If Taiwanese athletes win medals, they are feted with a variation of the Olympic flag and Taiwan's National Flag Song, an alternative to the state's national anthem.

But Taiwanese officials say China has intentionally slighted Taiwanese athletes at past sporting events and worry Beijing might bend the rules next summer.

Last month, a Chinese announcer at the World Taekwondo Championship proclaimed a victory for "the Chinese team" after Taiwan's Sung Yu-chi took gold in his weight-class, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported.

During opening and closing ceremonies at the 2001 World University Games in Beijing, Chinese officials ordered Taiwanese athletes to enter the stadium with the Chinese team rather than with nations beginning with the letter T, as is customary during Olympic Games, and the Taiwanese team boycotted the events, Lai said.

"The problem is always with the Chinese way of using small tactics," he said. "With Beijing's past behavior, we do not have any confidence."

Occasionally the rhetorical sparring has slipped toward absurdity, as when Taiwan rejected a pair of gift pandas from Beijing last year.

Before offering the pandas to Taiwan, Beijing conducted a national poll that named them "Tuantuan" and "Yuanyuan" - together meaning "reunion" - while Taiwan's president called the pandas part of China's "united front" tactics of "misleading the world and demoralizing Taiwan."

But because Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan and has increased spending on its military, the tit-for-tat is not really very funny, said Tung Chen-yuan, vice-chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

"Our relationship with China is not good currently," Tung said. "The Chinese government continues to threaten military strikes."

By Taiwan's count, China has more than quadrupled the number of missiles aimed at the island since 2000, while Taipei routinely carries out war games to practice fighting off a Chinese invasion.

In an annual report on China's military, the Pentagon warned last month that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would severely damage China's economy and lead to sanctions against the country.

Trade between the neighbors has more than doubled since 2002 and Taiwanese businesses have invested roughly $44 billion in China.

But in the run-up to the Olympics, the war of words is likely to escalate.

Regarding the torch relay, Beijing "hopes the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee could resist political interference," a Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee spokesman said recently.

Taipei has also dug in: "Right now the ball is in [Beijing's] court," said Lai, the Taipei Democratic Progressive Party official, adding that if Beijing does not change the route, Taiwan will not participate.

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