Taiwan prepares for chill wind from China Peking cold shoulders Taiwan plea for peace

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Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, spoke yesterday of his hopes for "further breakthroughs" in relations with China, despite widespread expectations that the mainland will resume provocative military manoeuvres near the island in the run up to Taiwan's first fully-democratic presidential elections in March.

In Peking, the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, reiterated the mainland's hardline position that any attempt to block Taiwan's reunification with the mainland would fail. "The Chinese people will eliminate all interference and accomplish the reunification of the motherland," he said in a message broadcast on state television's main evening news.

President Lee also said: "China must be united and ... its people should become amalgamated." But he added that 1996 would be "a year to expand Taiwan's international presence", a comment that will infuriate Peking, which is still smarting after Mr Lee's June visit to the United States.

The outlook for Sino-Taiwan relations over the next few months is bleak, given Peking's determination to undermine public support for Mr Lee before the unprecedented poll.

Reports in Hong Kong last month said the People's Liberation Army was planning to restart war games in February, including precision aerial bombing off the Taiwan coast. Mr Lee, viewed by China as a supporter of de facto independence for the island state, is the firm favourite in opinion polls to win the presidential race.

In separate remarks to a religious group, Mr Lee urged China to "adopt pragmatic approaches" to the relationship.

Taiwan's Prime Minister, Lien Chan, added his weight to Mr Lee's conciliatory comments, and repeated calls for a resumption of bilateral talks between Taipei and Peking.

"It is useless for both sides to merely exchange verbal messages in the air ... It's most important to resume talks as soon as possible," Mr Lien said yesterday. Peking halted talks between the two sides in June because of Mr Lee's US trip.

A measure of the deterioration in relations could be seen at the weekend, when Taiwan's Transport Ministry was reported to be urging direct exchange of weather data with mainland China. At present, Taiwan obtains meteorological information about China from US and Japanese consulting companies, the Taipei-based China Times said.

Quiet diplomacy is the last thing on Peking's mind, however, as it gears up for Taiwan's presidential election. The Chinese government's bellicose military exercises and sabre-rattling appeared to pay off in December's parliamentary elections in Taiwan. Mr Lee's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party only narrowly retained its majority, with its share of the vote falling to 46 per cent. The emerging pro-reconciliation New Party, in contrast, tripled its number of seats.

The election came after months of intimidation by China. Its attempt to frighten voters from supporting Mr Lee's KMT or the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party culminated at the end of November with heavily publicised military manoeuvres in what Peking termed the "war-zone" off its east coast. Television showed amphibious landings and extensive firepower, to press home Peking's message that it reserves the right to invade what it considers a renegade province if Taiwan moves to independence. Last June, the Chinese military conducted missile tests into the sea just north of the island.

Peking's tactics are increasingly polarising public opinion in Taiwan. The DPP's share of the vote held steady in the parliamentary elections, but the party's leaders had hoped for a better performance before China embarked on its strategy of confrontation. Other voters shifted their allegiance from the KMT to the New Party, which was founded by breakaway KMT hardliners who want dialogue with the mainland over possible future reunification. The New Party is exploiting widespread fears that continued tension across the Taiwan Strait, which has caused a stock market collapse, could affect the island's huge trade and investment business with the mainland.

Ordinary mainland Chinese, bombarded with official propaganda, are mostly unaware of the radical reforms to Taiwan's political system since the late 1980s. In the space of less than a decade, the island has moved from an authoritarian military regime towards democracy.