Beijing's Worst Nightmare

Talk about a strategy that backfired. The propaganda campaign was intended to scare Taiwanese voters away from opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian. Beijing's leaders and experts alike issued doomsday threats. As Chen's victory seemed ever nearer, Beijing's panic broke out into the open. Victory for Chen, a panel of scholars warned, could force China to accelerate its timetable for completing reunification of Taiwan with the motherland. People's Liberation Army commentators painted Chen as a sweet-tongued liar. China's reformist Prime Minister Zhu Rongji yelled and gestured angrily as he laid out Beijing's "bottom line"--no independence for Taiwan--just before the island's voters headed to the polls. Raising his voice dramatically in a press conference, Zhu warned Taiwan: "Don't vote on impulse. You might not get another opportunity to regret."

Why is Beijing so scared of Taiwan's new president? As head of the erstwhile opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen represents a new Taiwan that mainland China hardly understands. Over the decades, Beijing's leaders knew how to deal with the Kuomintang (KMT), whose leaders fled to Taiwan in 1949. The two enemies agreed on one fundamental point: one China. But Taiwan's commitment to reunification has faded; the DPP's platform even calls for the establishment of a Republic of Taiwan, which Beijing finds unacceptable. Chen, an earthy former dissident born in Taiwan, embodies the island's new independent identity. Now that he has won, Beijing-Taipei relations are entering a new, dangerous phase. Late Saturday Beijing tersely warned it was "listening to the words and watching the actions" of Taiwan's president-elect. Meanwhile, China's military "is making active and concrete preparations" for a possible future conflict over Taiwan, says a mainland source.

Despite Beijing's threats, Chen promised in a conciliatory victory speech to seek cross-straits peace, and shied away from provocative references to "Taiwan independence." He says he hopes to launch negotiations with Beijing, much as cold warrior Richard Nixon achieved a dramatic opening to China in the 1970s. At least initially, Beijing isn't buying Chen's "Nixon to China" gambit. On the eve of the vote, mainland experts flat-out rejected Chen. A Chen Shui-bian victory will shatter cross-strait peace, said Xin Qi of the China Peace and Development Center. "Taiwan's people will face catastrophic consequences." Most important, Chinese authorities object to Chen's apparent ambition to negotiate with the mainland--as Nixon did with Mao Zedong--as if both sides are sovereign states. "The mainland and Taiwan are definitely not two countries, and Chen is not the leader of another country," says one mainland expert familiar with China's policymaking process. "We don't trust him the way we trusted Nixon."

Even before the election, Beijing sensed that Taiwan was slipping away. In response, military hard-liners have launched a campaign to boost China's readiness for conflict. The military has pushed for bigger budgets and training programs focused on naval power projection and amphibious lift--all crucial to an invasion scenario. Last week mainland scholars warned darkly that reunification by force "could be just a matter of hours away."

That plays well to the nationalist public in Beijing, who want reunification as soon as possible. But the PLA isn't ready for an invasion just yet. In the meantime, China has acquired new weaponry that appears to be mainly aimed at Taiwan. Last year China agreed to purchase Russian Su-30 warplanes and unveiled its own Flying Leopard bombers; both boost the PLA's tactical ability to deliver ordnance on target. Earlier this year a Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyer armed with Sunburn cruise missiles--one of two such warships purchased by Beijing--steamed through the Taiwan Straits. The vessel is considered an "Aegis killer," referring to the advanced American "Aegis" guided-missile destroyers with advanced radar systems, which Beijing fears the United States will sell to Taipei.

Several years ago China's Navy acquired several upgraded Kilo-class submarines from Russia, which can help the PLA run blockade and anti-ship operations. NEWSWEEK has learned that Beijing viewed its submarines as "invisible heroes" in 1996, when it staged missile-firing exercises. According to conventional wisdom, Beijing had to stand down because Washington dispatched two U.S. aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. In fact, Chinese and Western officials say, one was too far away to pose a threat. The second carrier lingered on the eastern side of Taiwan--never entering the strait. One reason, Chinese and Taiwan military analysts say, is that a number of Chinese submarines suddenly went "out of area"; their whereabouts were unknown to U.S. intelligence. A Chinese official boasts that the subs "denied the U.S. carrier access" to the waterway. One retired U.S. general familiar with the incident says "there was no need to go into the strait."

Now that Chen is at the helm, will China invade? Beijing hoped Taiwan would think so. But an attack is unlikely for now. China's generals realize they still lack the muscle to succeed in an outright invasion. After a recent trip to China, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, concluded that the PLA still lacks the capability to "invade and control" Taiwan. For now, the first thing mainland authorities want, says one Western diplomat in Beijing, is "reassurances from Chen that he won't opt for independence" or, say, amend Taiwan's Constitution with more overt separatist language. Beijing has made schizoid rumblings, alternatively coy and belligerent, about reunification timetables. That's because no Chinese leader--not least President Jiang Zemin, who wants a reunified China as his legacy--can afford to set a deadline for Taiwan that cannot be enforced. That's good news for Taiwan--for now.