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The tiny island of Taiwan hangs like an afterthought 100 miles (160 km) off the vast southeast flank of China. But this would-be nation of 22 million is at the center of giant complications between China and the United States – including the specter of a shooting war.

Eye in the Sky

For only the second time in its history, Taiwan on March 18 will hold a direct presidential election. Such rituals of democracy usually are reserved for sovereign countries—which most of the world agrees that Taiwan is not.

As was the case in the run-up to the first such event in 1996, China – which regards Taiwan as its province—has responded to election-year politicking with threats of attack. In some respects these verbal warnings go even further than its physical saber-rattling of four years ago. At that time China staged military maneuvers, test-fired missiles and threatened to invade if the claim of independent statehood became the island’s official policy. The United States government responded by sending warships into the 100-mile (160-km) strait that separates the feuding parties.

Rhetoric aside, what are the chances of the two superpowers ever really going to war over this speck of Asian soil?


China’s claims to ownership of Taiwan date back to the 13th century and the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Named "Beautiful Island" (Ilha Formosa) by Portuguese explorers, it was ceded by China to Japan in 1895 after the first Sino-Japanese war. After World War II it was surrendered back to China, then led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party. The island became the last refuge for Chiang’s forces in 1949 after their defeat at the hands of Communists led by Mao Zedong.

Shaped like an upside—down hot pepper, Taiwan is bracketed by the capital Taipei to the north and the old industrial port of Kaohsiung to the south. In between are roughly 180 miles (290 km) of flat—to—rolling coastal plain and rugged mountains, including Yu Shan, at 3,997 meters the island’s highest peak.

After World War II the label "Made in Taiwan" came to be associated with low-priced merchandise. But like its much larger island neighbor to the north, Japan, Taiwan is now a thriving Western-style economy blessed with low inflation and unemployment. Its foreign reserves are the world’s third largest.

Taiwan is increasingly a center of capital—and technology&$151;intensive industries. At the same time it is a major investor in other Asian countries where labor is still cheap—including, ironically, mainland China.


In 1991 Taiwan ended more than 40 years of state-of-emergency rule by the Kuomintang. The party’s election victory that year, with 70 percent of the vote, confirmed the island’s popular opposition to unification with China.

However, going the further step of officially declaring independence always has been more controversial. In 1996 one of the major challengers to then incumbent President Lee Teng-hui advocated total independence. Despite heavy intimidation from the mainland, he won 21 percent of the vote, coming in second behind Lee, who got 54 percent.

Recently Beijing followed up increasingly belligerent statements about the March 18 election by going significantly beyond its previous warnings against a declaration of independence. It formally declared on Feb. 21 that it would attack Taiwan if the island drags its heels on starting reunification negotiations.

In later comments to the press, Chinese General Zhang Wannian summed up the latest official policy: "Taiwan’s independence means war. Separatism means no peace."


Observers have noted that the Chinese military has a vested interest in tough talk, which it uses to drum up support for bigger budgets. Civilian leaders, while continuing to insist on eventual unification, are more prone to speak of negotiations than military attack. According to a Foreign Ministry spokesman, China has no intention of interfering with the voting on March 18—which he called a "local election."

Weighing heavily against any actual armed conflict is the fact that China today is no longer the ideologically-driven communist state that existed under Mao. Most observers see China’s moves in the direction of a free, capitalistic economy as a more important item on the agenda of the current leadership.

Nevertheless, threats over unification continue, inevitably leading to hostility on Capitol Hill, where Taiwan has many staunch supporters. China wants the U.S. Congress to approve permanent normalization of trade relations as part of a deal to enter the World Trade Organization—one of China’s chief economic objectives in recent years. The most recent round of bellicose statements about Taiwan has prompted powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill to threaten to scuttle this legislation. It has also renewed efforts to form stronger military ties with Taiwan. v But with none of the candidates in the upcoming election ruling out eventual unification, almost no one currently foresees Taiwan becoming a cause of war anytime soon, if ever.

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• At 14,400 square miles (35,980 square kilometers), Taiwan is smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined.
• The official language is Mandarin Chinese, though many people can speak some English. Literacy rate is 94 percent.
• Taiwan’s climate is subtropical, with hot and humid summers ranging from May through September. Sweaters and coats are recommended only from December through March.
• The most popular religions are a mixture of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist (93 percent). Christians account for 4.5 percent.
• One of East Asia’s economic tigers, Taiwan felt few of the effects of the 1998 “Asian flu” that crippled many of its neighbors.

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For years after his defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists and exile to Taiwan, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek held up his Republic of China (ROC) as the legitimate government of China. He kept a 600,000-man army ready to retake the mainland one day.

That day of battle never came.

The United States has long followed other countries and the United Nations in recognizing the mainland’s Communist Party-dominated People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the country’s lawful government. However, the nationalist ROC flag still flies over Taiwan, and the defiant little island has strong friends in high places – including the U.S. Congress.

The United States maintains unofficial relations through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), whose offices in Taipei and Kaohsiung essentially function as consulates. Taiwan has similar offices in the United States and other world capitals.


Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election is a three-way race involving candidates who basically agree on most critical issues facing the island – including bettering relations with Beijing. Underneath a good deal of heated rhetoric, all more or less concur on the need to enter negotiations that eventually could lead to unification.

However, public opinion polls show that the March 18 election could signal the end of an era. The Kuomintang party (KMT) faces its most serious challenge in 51 years of rule over Taiwan.

Lien Chan

Incumbent Vice President Lien Chan, the KMT’s candidate, has been running consistently behind in public opinion polls, though not by much. Lien has responded with what his critics have labeled scare tactics, claiming that one of his opponents would openly advocate independence, thus risking attack from the Chinese. His other opponent, according to Lien, would “sell out” to the Communists.

Chen Shui-bian

Leading opposition party politician Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) previously has called for a declaration of independence. He now favors negotiations, saying there may be room for agreement on how Beijing’s “One China” policy is defined. Nevertheless, the mainlanders are still distrustful. A government spokeswoman said recently that “if [Chen] comes to power and continues to advocate Taiwan independence, there will be no peace.”

James Soong

Independent candidate James Soong – who Lien accuses of being soft on the Communists – broke away from the Kuomintang last year. It has been suggested that if he were elected, he might try to rejoin the party and assert control of it. Soong advocates conciliation with Beijing and the avoidance of an arms race. Although he denies the charge that he would “sell out” to the mainland, his policy toward Beijing is seen as being less clearly defined than that of his rivals.