The business of playing cross-strait politics appears to follow a well-trodden path, especially in the run-up to elections in Taiwan. First we see the pro-independence candidate in Taiwan, perhaps lagging behind in the polls, busily committing himself to policies that he knows will be intimidating and provocative to the mainland. Then mainland officials respond by giving Taiwan a timely reminder of the PLA's military might, perhaps by firing the odd test missile or by resorting to hawkish rhetoric. In turn, the Taiwanese voters react by showing they will not be swayed by sabre-rattling - and promptly throw their support behind the pro-independence candidate. This is precisely the scenario we have been witnessing in recent weeks. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian was, in September, trailing in the opinion polls, with one putting him more than 20 per cent behind. So he resorted to methods that experience has shown tend to be productive. This month he embarked on a high-profile trip to the US and Panama. During the visit Mr Chen managed to shake hands with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, pulling off something of a diplomatic coup. Sharp words of criticism from the mainland were to follow. Next, Mr Chen unveiled a timetable for a new Taiwanese constitution, providing for a referendum on the issue in 2006. This, he knew, would further inflame passions on the mainland, which fears that changes to the constitution could lead to Taiwan's independence. Mainland officials again responded in the time-honoured fashion. Open engagement in pro-independence activities, they said, would make the use of force unavoidable. It amounts to a threat of war. Meanwhile, Mr Chen's popularity appears to be surging, with polls conducted after his American trip putting him in the lead. The familiar cycle has been completed. The central government faces a dilemma. It cannot afford to be seen as weak and must respond to patriotic sentiments on the mainland. It has also, for three years, shown restraint and avoided threats of force. But the problem with this latest flexing of military muscle is that, as experience has shown, it simply doesn't work. The firing of missiles into Taiwan's shipping lanes in 1996 failed to prevent then-president Lee Teng-hui from winning an overwhelming victory. And the claim in the run-up to the 2000 election that all mainlanders were prepared to spill their blood to prevent independence did not stop Mr Chen sweeping to power. The mainland is becoming increasingly important to Taiwan's economy. In time, the people of Taiwan may well come to see peaceful reunification as being in their best interests. In the meantime, the wisest policy is to avoid raising tensions, difficult though this may be given the provocations of the electoral cycle.