Senior Taiwanese officials served notice Tuesday that they are prepared to upgrade relations with Beijing after the March 23 presidential election here--but only if China ends a series of war games directed against this island.
"This cannot happen under military threat," Foreign Minister Fredrick Chien said in an interview. ". . . The first thing they have to do is stop" the exercises. Once that happens, he indicated, Taiwan is ready for talks with Beijing.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry confirmed Tuesday that about 10 Chinese warplanes and 10 vessels began exercises about noon local time in coastal areas near Taiwan. It also said China launched an unarmed missile into a southern "target zone" off the island, one of two such areas into which Beijing launched three missiles last week.
"We can't cancel the presidential election because of the missile tests. But after the elections, we have to move on," Taiwan's justice minister, Ma Ying-jeou, said in a separate interview. "Everyone realizes that we should . . . make relations [with China] closer and more cooperative. If not, everyone will suffer, and Taiwan businessmen will suffer the most."
Sketching out Taipei's viewpoint on how the current crisis in the Taiwan Strait might be defused, officials suggested a series of steps that could take place after Taiwan's milestone election, in which a president will be directly elected for the first time.
These steps include new, higher-level government contacts between Taipei and Beijing and the first moves toward establishing direct air links between the island and the mainland.
Direct air links would be a major step. At the moment, residents of Taiwan can visit the mainland and people from China can travel to this island only by connecting in Hong Kong or Macao. The new links would mean lucrative air routes for both Taipei and Beijing.
"We're talking about big money," said one foreign businessman who believes that both sides would buy new airplanes from the United States and Europe.
The talk here of future negotiations runs contrary to the current drift of events, with China continuing to escalate its military threats against Taiwan.
Yet many analysts, both here and in Washington, believe that new contacts are likely after the election. China's military exercises, they say, are just one of the steps taken by Beijing and Taipei to position themselves for negotiations.
"The more votes [Taiwanese] President Lee [Teng-hui] gets, the stronger he will be [in talks] with the People's Republic of China," said Su Chi, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "They [Chinese officials] want to drive down his vote and force him to the [negotiating] table in a weaker position."
In 1979, when Deng Xiaoping first gained control of the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing called for creation of several links between Taiwan and the mainland: trade, postal and telephone communications, air and shipping links and a series of exchanges between the two countries. China continues to press for these links today.
After initially resisting all of Beijing's overtures, Taiwan in the late 1980s opened the way for its citizens to travel to the mainland and for phone calls to be relayed to and from China. But Taipei stopped short of allowing the rest of the links.
Ma, who formerly handled Taiwan's dealings with the mainland, said one obstacle has been security. He said Taiwanese military officials have complained that the air routes into and out of Taiwan are already very crowded and that there is not enough space and time for Taiwan's air force to conduct maneuvers.
Now, however, there are signs that Taiwan is moving forward with some of these links. Taipei's air terminal for domestic flights was recently modernized, and one source here said it has been designed to accommodate the eventual start-up of large numbers of flights to and from the mainland.
Over the last few years, Taiwan and China have had some contacts through two unofficial foundations set up in Taipei and Beijing. These foundations allowed the two governments to claim that they are still dealing with each other at arm's length.
But Taiwanese officials said Tuesday that after the election, the two governments will probably begin direct dealings.
There has also been talk of a summit-level visit between Taiwan and China, with Lee going to Beijing or Chinese President Jiang Zemin coming to Taipei. But Taiwanese officials said the timing is not yet right.
"I personally cannot verify that [plan for a summit meeting], nor can I say that it is not possible," Chien said. "We are living in an age where anything is possible."
"After the elections, there will be less inhibition on official meetings [between Taiwan and China]," Ma said. "But on top-level meetings, it's much less clear. When top-level officials meet, the world will have a lot of expectations. You cannot come out of such a meeting with nothing. So a lot has to be worked out before a summit."
Chien said Taiwan is "very much indebted" to the United States for what he called America's recent efforts to maintain stability in Asia. The Clinton administration last weekend decided to station two aircraft carriers and other support ships in the neighborhood of Taiwan in the period leading up to the election.
But the foreign minister said Taiwan is not seeking to have foreign troops help defend the island if any conflict breaks out.
"We should bear the major responsibility of defending ourselves," he said.