Washington, 25 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Beijing's threat this week to use military force to compel Taiwan to subordinate itself to mainland China is an act of intimidation directed at far more than that small island democracy.
This threat strikes at the very heart of the post-Cold War international order, opens the door to analogous actions by other large countries, and sets the stage for the kind of regional conflicts likely to grow into major confrontations between the great powers.
But precisely because Beijing's statement has such enormous potential consequences, governments around the world have tried to downplay Beijing's threat and to suggest that this is a "special case" without any analogies elsewhere.
At one level, such reactions make sense. Along with Beijing and Taipei, almost every government in the world argues that there is only "one China" -- even though there are two very different regimes, one on the mainland and one on Taiwan. And consequently, the leaders of all these countries implicitly or explicitly acknowledge that reunification should somehow and sometime take place.
But there are three far more compelling reasons for thinking that what Beijing has threatened to do will have far broader consequences.
First, whatever the world's leaders continue to say, there really are two Chinas, a small democratic one on the island of Taiwan and a large dictatorial one on the mainland. Combining the two, especially as the result of the use of force, will destroy a regime based on the will of the people and replace it with one where power really does grow, as Mao Tse Tung said, "out of the barrel of the gun."
If that happens, and if the international community does not intervene to stop it, regimes elsewhere may be tempted to use force in order to achieve their goals.
Second, a number of countries around the world are certain to extend Beijing's logic to their own aspirations to seize parts of neighboring countries which they consider to be properly their own or to defend their co-ethnic communities abroad. Because ethnic and political borders rarely coincide, such efforts could trigger ever more border wars and even bigger conflicts around the world.
And third, other countries will be watching to see what Beijing does and how the international community reacts. If Beijing achieves its goals by force or the threat of force, the leaders of small countries living next door to other large states are likely to draw the conclusion that they have no choice but to bow to the wishes of those with more guns or to retreat into a hyperbolic nationalism of their own.
Either way, the world will change, with large countries increasingly able to throw their weight around and smaller countries forced to bow to the inevitable. In addition to everything else, such a shift will put a new premium on military strength and encourage ever more arms races by countries which desperately need resources for their domestic needs.
None of this, of course, is inevitable. The political leadership on Taiwan may prove to be more skillful at parrying Beijing's thrust than anyone might predict. After all, Taipei has succeeded in doing so before. Moreover, the international community may in fact be able to organize itself in ways that would either block Beijing's plans or punish Beijing so severely that no other country would think about following the same course.
But the prospects for that, recent history suggests, are not especially bright. On the one hand, the international community has shown its usual reluctance to oppose what a major power does, even if it violates international law, as long as it claims to be acting in defense of its own nation.
And on the other, that community has grown increasingly weary of intervening on behalf of those attacked by larger powers either because of the direct costs involved or because such intervention rarely brings rapid progress toward a resolution of the conflict.
Together all these factors are likely to reduce the chances for any serious response until Beijing acts on its threat. By then, of course, any possibility of containing the consequences of this act of intimidation will be much reduced.