A few years ago I went to Taiwan for a fortnight. In the first week I interviewed the then-premier Chang Chun-hsiung and various government and opposition officials. In the second week I made my way around this interesting island which is now in the news again.
Taiwan is small. Really small. You can probably drive around it comfortably in three days, two if you were in a hurry.
For a little place it causes big China quite a problem. And right now the Chinese have passed legislation which says that if Taiwan makes a move towards independence then it will be prepared to take military action.
There’s nothing new in this sabre-rattling except that China has now made it official: they are mad as hell and not going to take it.
Taiwan repeatedly clears it throat and makes noises about declaring itself independent while China considers Taiwan, population 23 million, part of itself so any such declaration would be considered secession.
When I was there things were sort of quiet in the cross-Strait war of words, although you couldn’t help but feel the tension sometimes. One day in the coastal town of Taichung (warning: lots of places in Taiwan start with “tai”) the local squadron of Taiwanese jets patrolling the coast flew so low as to be absolutely deafening for many minutes.
I was told this was a daily occurrence. That’s the kind of thing which keeps you edgy, I reckon.
The premier, and a few other political figures I spoke with, were optimistic that things could be resolved with their bullish neighbour. Taiwan was a sovereign state, they said, and “patience” was the watchword on everyone’s lips.
However things hadn't been helped when George W Bush was elected and weighed in saying any attack on Taiwan would be met with retaliation by America. At that time no attack by China had been threatened.
Premier Chang had his work cut out: his Democratic People’s Party (DPP) had just won the election and they had tossed out 50 years of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT), a party which invented the concept of corruption, or “black gold” as they called it.
The KMT had its fingers in almost every pie (those that it didn’t own outright, and the bakery they were made in) and the DPP was trying to clean up business and get more transparency into government. They were making a pretty good start too.
But if the DPP had to focus on domestic matters it also couldn’t to take its eye off China which has been pissed off with the existence of Taiwan since the KMT had fled in the face of Mao Tse-Tung’s communists 50 years before.
In China the old cadres and communist camp-followers don’t want to go to their graves with the Taiwan question unresolved: after all, they got back Tibet and Hong Kong, and that only leaves this nuisance -- a powerhouse of business and industriousness -- a few miles off the coast.
And they are remarkably few miles. Today -- and this might be what would prevent outright military action -- the fact is that these two countries (oops, you can’t call Taiwan a country in earshot of the Chinese) enjoy considerable cross-Strait trade. Billions of bucks worth.
What one Taiwanese politico told me is that for their bio-tech and computer industries to grow -- not to mention smaller businesses and those of enthusiastic entrepreneurs -- they needed a cheaper labour market than their small but highly educated and hard-working island could offer.
For what it cost to employ one Taiwanese you could get 12 workers in China and 20 in Vietnam.
So Taiwanese eyes were always looking to invest in, and trade with, China. And they have: to the tune of around $100 billion last year. There are also about one million Taiwanese living in China, and next month some more regular flights are scheduled between the two.
So these two countries aren’t in a situation like the two Koreas, they have a lot to lose by way of trade and investment if someone pulls a trigger.
Wealthy Taiwan, despite the small Asian market recessions, has put around $50 billion into China.
"A peaceful Taiwan Strait is not only good for regional peace but also would be in the interests of the United States and mainland China, “ premier Chang -- now the DDP’s secretary-general -- told me.
“So a peaceful Taiwan Strait is not only important to this region but also of importance to the world. I think peace is the language that is spoken, not only in Taiwan but also in New Zealand."
But that optimistic talk was in mid 2001.
Commentators in Taiwan are hopefully noting that because the new law doesn’t contain a deadline for military action that "it does not have specific lethality in its content," as Wu Pei-wei, a fund manager with ABN AMRO Asset Management in Taipei said.
"Therefore, it will not have any [economic] impact on Taiwan."
So China has racked up the rhetoric, some in Taiwan are demanding an apology, Australia and New Zealand are treading cautiously, and -- mercifully at the moment -- the US has gone peculiarly quiet.
Taiwan is an irritation to China, but as that lumbering beast becomes increasingly industrialised and high-tech, especially on its eastern coast from which you can spit to Taiwan, then it is becoming more like the country it despises, and to some (economic) extent, envies.
Various parts of southern China, notably the economic zone around Guangzhou and Hong Kong, as well as more liberal Shanghai, have no will for any kind of scrap with Taiwan, be it a blockade, a tactical military strike or an invasion. It would serve no economic purpose and would invite more problems than it resolved.
But then again, one thing all China watchers will tell you is that you just never know what it might do.
The sound you hear may just be sabres rattling. Let’s hope so.