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Subtlety has never been the Chinese government’s strong suit. Unfortunately, the government in Beijing has unleashed its latest broadside against Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, at perhaps the worst possible time: weeks ahead of the island’s second democratic presidential election and just as the U.S. Congress begins deliberation of two bills that go to the heart of U.S. relations with China. There has been some backtracking by Beijing, but the damage has been done.

Earlier this week, the Chinese Cabinet released a white paper that threatened the use of “drastic measures, including force” against Taiwan under three conditions: if Taipei declared independence, if there was a foreign invasion of the island, or if it continued to stall on reunification. The declaration was condemned immediately by Taiwan, the United States and elsewhere. Japan has not commented.

The statement, the most belligerent to be issued by the Chinese government in years, had two purposes. First, it was a blatant attempt to influence the presidential elections that will be held in Taiwan March 18. In that, it backfired. An opinion poll taken in Taiwan the day after the white paper was issued showed that 68 percent of respondents were not worried about a Chinese invasion during the runup to the vote. Second, it put the candidates on notice that the status quo is unsupportable. Progress in cross-strait relations is expected of whoever wins the upcoming election.

Such heavy-handedness is not new. Just before the first presidential election in 1996, China test-fired missiles near Taiwan to show its displeasure with President Lee Teng-hui, who had just completed a high-profile trip to the U.S. and was seen as favoring independence. The ploy backfired then, too. Mr. Lee won the election by a landslide and the world condemned the Chinese posturing. The U.S. sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait and the island’s supporters were given a boost.

This week’s rhetorical blast will again encourage Taiwan’s supporters in the U.S. The outburst comes as Congress debates the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which calls for increased U.S. military ties with the island. It passed the House of Representatives, but support has been falling, especially in the wake of a positive visit to Beijing by a U.S. delegation. Taiwan is a hot-button issue for Republicans, however, and they are in the midst of a particularly nasty campaign. Support for Taiwan could well become a litmus test for a candidate and the white paper is sure to become an issue. If it becomes a theme in the Republican nomination fight, it is sure to then figure in the national election.

The bad feelings could also spill over into the vote on China’s membership in the World Trade Organization. Congress is scheduled to vote on the deal that has been negotiated with Beijing. It was always going to be a tough fight, but it just got tougher. The general question of relations with China is now added to bipartisan doubts about trade liberalization in general, which cut across party lines. Beijing’s threats only give more people a reason to vote against the bill.

The uproar has prompted Chinese officials to backtrack. They now say that the white paper is intended to prod the next Taiwanese president into resuming negotiations, citing the conciliatory points that have been overlooked. For example, the paper says that any dialogue would be conducted among equals, which is a retreat from Beijing’s previous position. In addition, it sets no time limits, nor does it limit the subjects or the order in which they will be discussed. If the Chinese government is serious, the white paper could form the basis for future negotiations.

The problem is that the Taiwanese people treasure their freedom. Democracy has made remarkable strides on the island in the last half-century, and the Taiwanese are not ready to give it up for promises of some vague form of autonomy. While talk of independence has diminished in the last few years, that is largely a recognition that breaking with the status quo — de facto independence, albeit with second-class status internationally — carries too high a price.

The return of Hong Kong and Macau has left the Beijing government with one outstanding historical claim: Taiwan. Previous Chinese leaders always claimed that the issue could be solved in 100 years’ time; they were in no hurry. The new leadership is losing patience. That is a pity, since their outbursts only make the realization of the goal of a reunified China that much more difficult.

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