The war of words across the Taiwan Strait is heating up as Taipei approaches a vote on a controversial referendum bill. Until recently, Beijing has not threatened action, but now that it has, it must follow through.
Zhang Mingqing, spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said Beijing would come out with a 'strong reaction' if Taiwan passes a referendum bill on Nov. 27. The heated rhetoric has sparked new fears that a crisis is approaching in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing's latest warning follows Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's statement that China would "pay any price" to prevent Taiwan's independence. Until very recently, Beijing preferred to play coy in response to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's election politicking and his provocative calls for a plebiscite and constitutional reforms — legal measures Beijing views as steps toward eventual independence. By heating up its rhetoric, China has painted itself into a corner and now must act if the referendum bill is passed — or its longstanding threat to use force against the island if it tries for independence will lose legitimacy. The problem is Beijing would prefer not to have to take strong measures against Taiwan: To do so would aid Chen's election campaign, which is based almost entirely on independence issues. Furthermore, cross-strait tension also risks war with the United States and the loss tens of billions of dollars in Taiwanese investment on the mainland if events spiral out of control. To make matters worse, Taipei knows it and Washington knows it too. Beijing probably would be better off if it ignored Taiwan's elections and just left Chen to battle the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People's First parties, because every aggressive statement or action likely serves only to boost Chen's standings. However, internal Chinese politics have a logic of their own, and it is not always clear to outside observers. Even if Chinese President Hu Jintao would prefer not to provoke a cross-strait confrontation at this time, he is probably under heavy pressure from parties within the highest echelons of power in China to act against the island. So even though things might be best left alone, they will not be. This leaves STRATFOR asking what China can do to pressure Taiwan without virtually guaranteeing Chen's re-election and appearing utterly weak when challenged by the island's increasing cries for national sovereignty. Beijing could opt to launch a swift and devastating military strike on the island, but we feel the U.S. Seventh Fleet still vetoes that option at this point. More likely, China will start with light pressure that either causes some pain for Taiwan or frightens Washington and voters on the island — prompting them to turn against Chen. Such options include, but by no means are limited to, one of the following. First, Beijing could choose to cut off all visits by Taiwan residents to the mainland for a short time. This would be a low-cost, highly symbolic gesture that would disrupt lucrative business ties between the two sides and could make many Taiwanese reconsider the island's relationship with China. This measure is far less bellicose than missile tests and warnings that China is willing to "spill blood" to prevent Taiwan's independence. A second, more aggressive tactic would be some spectacular but nonviolent demonstration of China's growing military might. For example, if a Chinese Xia-class ballistic-missile-capable submarine slipped undetected into the eastern waters of Taiwan or even farther in the Pacific — say Hawaii — it might give policymakers in Taipei and Washington pause. Such a move could prompt Washington to throw a lot of cold water on Taiwan's moves toward independence. These measures would be clear expressions of Chinese power, and neither is too provocative to overheat the situation in a way that would work against Beijing. We suspect Chinese political and military leaders have come up with a few ideas of their own. We could expect see them at work soon.