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Sunday, September 02, 2001

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Taiwan, a flashpoint in Asia-Pacific

By C. Raja Mohan

TAIPEI, SEPT. 1. As one flies into lush green Taiwan, one can appreciate why the Portuguese mariners called it Formosa, the land of beauty.

A densely-forested mountain ridge runs through the spine of this island barely 400 km long; small rivers and heavy rains make the tropical island full of vegetation.

But as tensions between Taiwan and China mount, and the U.S. promises to defend Taiwan with `whatever it takes', the island now has become the principal flashpoint in the Asia- Pacific. China has increasingly been concerned that the present leadership of Taiwan is pushing the island towards independence. Beijing has often flexed its muscle in recent years to warn Taiwan that any such move in defiance of the shared goal of unification would invite the use of military force.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration in Washington has dropped its ``strategic ambiguity'' about whether it would prevent a forcible unification of Taiwan with China.

It has promised more military assistance to Taiwan, and has now declared that it would defend it, in case China tries to take it by force.

Small wonder then that the Taiwan Straits, a small stretch of water that separates Taiwan from the mainland China, has become the potential arena of military confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

Kashmir, dubbed as the nuclear flashpoint of the last decade, now yields place to Taiwan, which is the number one hot spot of the world.

* * *

Just a cursory look at Taiwan and its geographic location will indicate why the island is so strategically significant. Taiwan is at the heart of the South China Sea, often called the ``Mediterranean of the East'', for encompassing a region that includes China to the west, Japan and Korean peninsula to the north, and the Philippines to the south.

It straddles the waterways and sea-lanes that connect North-East Asia to the South-East and the Pacific Ocean to the Indian. It is the navel of a region that has been home to the fastest growing economies of the world for decades.

But the troubled political legacy of the region, unresolved territorial conflicts and the unfinished agenda of China's national unification make Taiwan the fulcrum of the conflict in Eastern Asia.

* * *

Driving into Taipei from the Chang Kai-shek international airport, one is surprised at not finding a sprawling urban wasteland one had expected. As Taiwan raced at break-neck speed in the 1960s and 1970s to become the first Asian tiger, the image of Taipei was precisely that. But environmental consciousness soon followed economic prosperity. Residents here say that in just about a decade, the city has been transformed. A metro system has driven traffic underground. Efficient policies of urban waste management have turned the city clean. The main boulevards and street corners are tastefully turned out. With wealth and education, there is a new appetite for arts and culture, making Taipei a modern metropolis.

* * *

The man who oversaw the conversion of Taipei is none other than the current President of Taiwan, Mr. Chen Shui-bian. As the first elected Mayor of Taipei, Mr. Chen engineered the makeover of the city. In electoral politics, however, there is no gratitude. In his bid to become the Mayor again, Mr. Chen had lost to an equally charismatic Mr. Ma Ying-jeou.

For all practical purposes, the Mayor of Taipei is seen as the second most important political personality of Taiwan. It is widely believed that Mr. Ma will challenge Mr. Chen in the next round of presidential election in 2004.

Mr. Chen belongs to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and Mr. Ma to the Kuomintang that stands for the unification. Mr. Cheng is the first non-Kuomintang leader to stand at the helm of the Taiwanese affairs. As he seeks to hold China at bay, draw the U.S. into a deeper commitment to defend Taiwan, and reorder the domestic politics, this rich and beautiful island might well generate some very tense moments for Asia and the world in the near future.

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