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Western Press Review: China-Taiwan Tensions, Kosovo

Prague, 23 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- There are warnings in Western press commentary today about growing tensions between communist China and the island nation of Taiwan, which split with China decades ago. Earlier this week, Beijing threatened to use force against Taiwan if the island's leaders take too long to agree to reunite with the mainland. There is also continuing comment on the international community's problems in bringing order to the troubled region of Kosovo.

IRISH TIMES: Threats reflect the military's stronger position within China's power structure

Commentators note China's threat to Taiwan came only weeks before the island's upcoming presidential election, and some find Beijing's tone more aggressive than ever before. The Irish Times, for example, notes "a military threat against the island if there is indefinite delay in negotiations aimed at reunification." The paper's editorial goes on to say: "[China's] stark warnings to begin unity talks or face attack ... are a sharp reminder that this issue has considerable potential to destabilize the East Asian region just as it is recovering from the shock of its collapsing tiger economies two years ago."

"As it happens," the editorial continues, "both China and Taiwan escaped the worst excesses of that crisis. ... [But] they both have much to lose if it goes out of control, especially in the field of investment, trade and international economic relations."

The paper also says this: "The Chinese warning ... is clearly intended to influence voters. ... The threat to use military force if negotiations are indefinitely delayed adds a new condition to Beijing's [old] demands, which have previously hinged on rejecting any declaration of independence or foreign military interference. This reflects the military's recently stronger position within China's power structure."

GLOBE AND MAIL: Taiwan is the first Chinese democracy in 5,000 years of Chinese history

In Canada's Globe and Mail daily, British contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash says that, despite Beijing's ominous shadow, Taiwan is setting an independent course toward next month's presidential election. On a visit to the island-state, Ash writes in a commentary: "This wacky, noisy, funny election matters to us [in the West] because of China's possible reaction to it, and the consequences that would have for the world."

Ash recalls: "Last time the Taiwanese went to the polls to elect a president, in 1996, the Chinese fired missiles over the relatively narrow straits that separate Taiwan from the mainland, and the U.S. sent warships in response. ... This time," he continues, "anticipating trouble, the Americans have sent a high-level delegation to Beijing [in part] to ensure that things don't get out of hand."

For Ash, the reality on the ground is different. He writes: "Everyone knows that, realistically, Taiwan's future for a long time to come will be neither unification with the mainland nor full independence, but rather to continue with what [has been called] a 'third way' between them. ... Even if this means slightly choppier relations with Beijing in the short term," he concludes, "it will surely be good for the world ... in the long term. With all its faults, its tattiness, its corruption, Taiwan is already something remarkable: the first Chinese democracy in 5,000 years of Chinese history. If it goes well, it will be a positive example to the larger nation that constitutes one-fifth of humankind."

WASHINGTON POST: U.S. policy grows less tenable as Taiwan gets more democratic

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times carry editorials today on the increased tension between China and Taiwan. The Washington Post calls the U.S.'s long-standing policy toward Taiwan one of "strategic ambiguity." The paper writes: "The U.S. will provide the increasingly democratic island just enough political and military support to deter China from taking the island by force; but it will not provide so much that Taiwan's leaders feel emboldened to declare independence, which could provoke China to start a war that would almost certainly involve American force."

But the editorial goes on to argue that "this policy grows less tenable as Taiwan gets more and more democratic and China remains a dictatorship. Most Taiwanese understandably don't want to be swallowed by a repressive state," it says, "and unlike in the past -- when Taiwan was governed by dictators of its own -- their views on independence shape national policy. Now [China's new threat] has further weakened the rationale for the U.S. policy of ambiguity."

The Washington Post also notes that China's threat was issued "only hours after [the] high-level U.S. delegation in Beijing finished pleading for restraint on the subject of Taiwan." It concludes with these words: "The U.S. response to China's latest challenge should be shaped, at a minimum, by the need not to say or do anything that China could present to the next administration as U.S. acquiescence in its new policy. Strategic ambiguity does, at times, have its uses; [but] this is a moment for strategic clarity."

NEW YORK TIMES: This is no time for Beijing to threaten to overturn the understanding with Taiwan

The New York Times writes that "the blame for this flare-up lies squarely with Beijing." Its editorial says: "Taiwan's three leading presidential candidates have tried to mute the independence issue, and all three favor early talks with the mainland. Most of the world, and most Taiwanese, acknowledge the principle that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single China that should ultimately be reunited."

The editorial continues: "Over five decades, a relatively stable arrangement has evolved that allows Taiwan and the mainland to maintain separate political and economic systems as part of a larger, single China. That understanding," it sums up, "has served both sides well and preserved peace. This is no time for Beijing to threaten to overturn it."

TIMES: The UN risks losing the peace

On Kosovo's continuing inter-ethnic tensions, the Times of Britain says the UN risks "losing the peace [if it does not get] more resources and new leadership in Kosovo." The paper argues: "The intense clashes between British troops and Kosovo Albanians in Mitrovica might have been prompted by the explosive circumstances of this divided city. They are also a reflection of the wider difficulties that the international community has faced as it attempts to restore order within Kosovo."

The Times' editorial goes on: "The ethnic violence demonstrated in Mitrovica is unusual, if only because Serbs and Albanians in the rest of Kosovo have so separated themselves from each other that direct conflict is impractical. But the drift towards anarchy seems relentless." The paper lists some of the problems: "The absence of any consensus over the authority of Yugoslav legislation within Kosovo, the uncertain procedures for trials, [and] the refusal of local police officers to arrest, or judges to impose sentences on, all those with whom they sympathize."

The result, the editorial concludes, has been what it calls "an orgy of lawlessness. In the Times' words: "The international police force is still, as Bernard Kouchner, the UN special representative for Kosovo contends, understaffed and over-stretched." But the paper says Kouchner himself "has proved an inefficient administrator with an unhelpful enthusiasm for personal publicity. The UN now needs to reconsider every aspect of its work in Kosovo," it sums up. "If it does not, then it will find itself present on the ground for decades but to little beneficial effect."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The protectors of peace must themselves make some progress

In a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Peter Muench says this: "The problems of the entire province are concentrated in [Mitrovica]. Here, the two enemy ethnic groups collide with each other directly. The Serbs live in the northern part of the city, the Albanians in the south, with the small Ibar River separating the two groups. ... Both Serbs and Albanians ," he adds, "are naturally doing everything in their power to foment dissension within KFOR."

The commentary continues: "The Albanians accuse the French of having an historic and current affinity with the Serbs, which the Albanians say has led to the present situation in which Serbs have a free hand to do as they please in the northern part of the city. The Serbs protest against the 'brutal and aggressive' actions of German and [U.S.] troops. ... Both sides have let the accusations deteriorate into violence over the last few days, ... a dangerous situation for the peacekeeping troops and [for] the entire peace process."

Muench argues that the international community, in his words, "would be well-advised to concentrate all of its efforts on the decisive battle for Mitrovica. It must show strength ... neither allowing itself to become co-opted, nor allowing the combatants to fan the flames of internal divisions among countries." And, he adds, "the protectors of peace must themselves make some progress in impoverished and devastated Kosovo. They must offer a positive alternative to the plans of those seeking to incite more violence. The fighting in Mitrovica shows that they have not been able to do this up to now."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: A division of Kosovo would be a dangerous signal to the rest of Yugoslavia

In Denmark, the daily Berlingske Tidende writes: "The standoff between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Mitrovica exemplifies the difficulties of reconciling the various ethnic groups in Kosovo. The Western powers that won the war in Kosovo must clearly allocate more civilian resources in order not to lose the peace."

For the paper, "Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ... is again the villain in the current situation. If necessary, the [recent] series of diplomatic warnings sent to Milosevic over the conflict in Mitrovica should be expanded into a long-term show of power to keep the Belgrade regime in check." The editorial also assigns some blame to Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, saying "the West's peacemaking effort ... may fail unless action is taken against the [old Kosovo Liberation Army ] as well."

The editorial concludes: "There is little doubt that extremists on both the Albanian and the Serbian side will use the present tensions to promote their ideas for the division of Kosovo. But such a division will not only render the war meaningless. It would be a dangerous signal to the rest of Yugoslavia and the Balkans at large."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)