China threatens to invade Taiwan unless talks start

China upped the stakes in its stand-off with Taiwan yesterday by threatening to invade the island unless talks start soon on reunification.

China upped the stakes in its stand-off with Taiwan yesterday by threatening to invade the island unless talks start soon on reunification.

The ultimatum came as campaigning for Taiwan's presidential elections on 18 March moved into full swing. It was clearly aimed at influencing voters, and at warning the world that China is deadly serious in its intentions to recover the island, which it considers a renegade province.

If Taiwan indefinitely delays negotiations on reunification, Peking will have no choice but to use "all drastic measures possible, including military force", China's state council - cabinet - said. Previously, it had threatened military action only in the event of a declaration of independence or a foreign invasion of the island.

"Peking is making its position clear. It wants talks with Taiwan and it wants them as soon as the presidential elections are over. It doesn't want any more waiting," a Western diplomat in Peking said.

China's Communist government has never relinquished its claim to Taiwan, which split from the mainland at the end of a civil war 51 years ago. While the Taiwanese government also supports unification once the mainland becomes more democratic, there is a growing pro-independence movement which has alarmed Peking. Efforts in the United States to increase military support for the island have angered China and remain a potential flashpoint.

The statements were carried in the first "white paper" on Taiwan issued since 1993. The state council also said Taiwan's insistence that China must embrace Western-style democracy before reunification was an "excuse" and accused it of dragging its feet over any degree of rapprochement.

To underline the threat of force, the Hong Kong media reported that China's President, Jiang Zemin, was in southern China touring military bases that would contribute to any invasion force of the island.

Since the return of Hong Kong in 1997, and particularly since Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty in December, Peking has been pushing harder and harder for political negotiations with Taiwan. But the latter has been prepared to discuss only practical issues such as fishing rights. China blames President Lee Teng-hui for the impasse.

"Lee Teng-hui has become the general representative of Taiwan's separatist forces, a saboteur of the stability of the Taiwan Strait, a stumbling block preventing the development of relations between China and the United States and a trouble-maker for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region," the white paper said.

In 1996, China menaced Taiwan with war games in the run-up to its presidential elections after Washington approved a visa for Mr Lee to visit the US. This time, Peking has stayed neutral towards the three leading candidates. But China's ambassador to Washington, Li Zhaoxing, has warned that there will be worse consequences than four years ago if the US bolsters military support for the island.

The US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, spent much of his two days of talks in Peking last week calling for "the highest possible degree of restraint, caution, prudence on everybody's part". Chinese officials took every opportunity to remind him that Taiwan would reunify with the mainland.

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