TAIWAN War Of Words Or War In Hours?

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War of Words or War in Hours?

John Walley March 18, 2000

HONG KONGThe morning dawns over Hong Kong with the first glimpses of blue sky in weeks. Hong Kong is usually shrouded in smog this time of year, but today promises to be an exception.

Just across the South China Sea lies Taiwan, a neighboring sister province of China, and it is shrouded in a different type of cloud. Today, however, a ray of hope promises to break through there as well.

Today is the day Taiwan holds it elections to decide its fate.

In the much-publicized media spectacle leading up to today, the United States secretary of defense, William Cohen, was in the region Friday to dismiss it as a "war of words."

The Chinese perspective here is a little different. The headline in one Hong Kong newspaper yesterday read: "War in Hours."

As a former British colony ceded only recently back to the control of China, Hong Kong represents a bastion of Western capitalism and influence, proving to be a bellwether of how China plans to deal with the West as it rises to a premier world power.

Hong Kong is officially a province of Communist China, but the influence here is hardly felt. It is designated as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and "Special" proves to be an understatement.

Hong Kong flies in the face of the dogma coming from Beijing, and for the most part here it goes unnoticed.

The people enjoy a good life in a modern city with lots of economic opportunity activity. When you arrive at the station from the airport in Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular business area of Kowloon, you are greeted by a mammoth banner about the size of a football field advertising an online jobs-recruiting site. This shows both the supply of jobs and the high technology.

During the business day, masses of people scurry across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island on the modern, efficient "Octopus" subway system, all the while continuing to chat away with their mobile phones, which still work even in the tunnel beneath the harbour.

Except for the language, and a few cultural anomalies like signs in the subway that say, "No Spitting" and "Please Mind the Elderly," the scene is not altogether different from New York or London or any other Western city.

Hong Kong has grown into an economic powerhouse of Asia through its history of British control, becoming a magnet for immigrants throughout all of Asia.

The question now is how this trend will be affected by the control of mainland China, and how China will gradually assert its authority over Hong Kong without upsetting this delicate balance of liberties and prosperity that makes capitalism work.

The same question is being raised today in Taipei.

Taiwan, like Hong Kong, has flourished under Western influence for generations, but today is feeling the uncertain  and to some, unwelcome  encroachment of the strong, long arms of their Chinese motherland.

Also like Hong Kong, Taiwan was originally peopled by native Chinese. However, the followers of Chiang Kai-shek have a long history of political independence and dissidence.

Today they struggle with the same questions facing Hong Kong. As the polls open, we will soon see whether Taiwan goes peaceably into the embrace of mainland China like its southern neighbor.

In geographical terms, with the exception of their now-busy ports and harbours, both the tiny islands of Hong Kong and Taiwan are negligible in terms of their physical resources.

The question then is how these two obscure little trading posts grew into world-class centers of banking and finance and industry while China struggles to feed its people.

The answer has to lie in ideology, and that's all the more reason why China feels compelled to regain control of Taiwan and put this genie back in its bottle.

China is on the verge of coming into its own economic revolution.

The Three Gorges damn project funded by the World Bank is the largest public-works project ever undertaken. If this project is successful it will deliver not only flood control, electricity and water for drinking and irrigation to the interior of China on an unprecedented scale, it also promises to turn hundreds of centuries-old, sleepy, little villages deep inside China into new bustling seaports.

Additionally, Chinas acceptance into the World Trade Organization is gaining support throughout the world.

Some major business leaders in the United States are embracing the idea and lending support to President Clinton's efforts to get China in the WTO.

Just this week, Dick Brown, chairman of the U.S. multinational Electronic Data Systems, a global information systems integrator that would very much like to expand into China, was in Hong Kong. He made it clear he supports China's entry into the WTO and is on Clinton's task force to help bring it about.

Brown is one U.S. business executive in a position to know about China. As the former chairman of Cable and Wireless, which owns and operates Hong Kong Telecom, Brown had lots of business dealings with China and more than 30 of its business juntas. He knows breaking into the market in China is no easy task and requires connections.

As China continues its quest to be a world superpower, leveraging the awesome expanse of its work force and military might, it has made it clear that it sees Taiwan as instrumental and strategic to its goal.

We will learn today whether the people of Taiwan will choose willingly to be part of that quest.

The outcome will surely affect U.S. foreign policy either way, with potentially devastating consequences if the United States should choose to intervene.

While Cohen may accuse China of waging a "war of words," words are more likely to be the recourse of the United States than of China.

China is serious about its intentions on Taiwan, and its provocative statement about the United States' valuing Los Angeles more than it does Taiwan drives this point home.

Let us hope that regardless of the outcome of todays election in Taiwan, cooler heads will prevail in the administrations of both the United States and China, and that Taiwan and Hong Kong can continue their prosperity in their new journey with China.


-- Zdude (zdude777@hotmail.com), March 18, 2000


What a bunch of Commie bull! Three Gorges turning sleepy towns into bustling seaports? Valuing Los Angeles more than Taiwan? This is more Chinese FUD. The election is now 24 hours old and I haven't heard of the war breaking out yet.

-- Jim Cooke (JJCooke@yahoo.com), March 18, 2000.

While there are many more exchanges of angry words than wars, all the wars I am aware of began with words and moved to open conflict. It is certain in my mind that the Chinese were using words to steer the Taiwan elections to the outcome they desired, but equally clear to me that the desire of the Chinese is ardent, and strong enough to lead to war, if Taiwan does not placate them. I doubt any immediate move to invasion, but the plans for invasion may be put on a much more serious footing now.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), March 18, 2000.

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