Saturday was a historic moment in Chinese history. For the first time in that country’s long past, the leader of the opposition party took power democratically and peacefully. The inauguration of Mr. Chen Shui-bian as president was celebrated — and feared. The government in Beijing has made it clear that it expects the new president to explicitly renounce thoughts of independence for the island and to adhere to the “one-China” principle. In his inauguration speech, Mr. Chen went a long way to assuage Beijing’s concerns. An opportunity for dialogue exists: Beijing should seize it.
Since emerging as a candidate for the presidency, Mr. Chen has been softening — if not back-pedaling on — his party’s position on independence. The Democratic Progressive Party originally favored declaring independence. Since then, the party has changed its policy, striking the independence plank from its platform. It now says that it will leave such matters to a popular referendum.
During the campaign, Mr. Chen said that he would continue the status quo. In his inauguration address, he was more explicit still. “As long as the Chinese Communist Party regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office I will not declare independence,” said the new president. Moreover, he promised to not change the national title, to not push for the inclusion of the “state-to-state” description in the constitution, and to not promote a referendum to change the status quo on the question of independence or unification. Finally, he said that he would continue to use the National Reunification Guidelines that had been set up by and guided the former Nationalist government.
In short, Mr. Chen has opted for the status quo. That is what most Taiwanese want. Public opinion polls show that only about 15 percent of the public favors independence; an even smaller figure wants reunification with China. That is what just about everyone else in the region and the world wants, too.
Taiwan has made remarkable strides in the last half century. Martial law was in effect until 1987. All political parties except the ruling nationalist Kuomintang were banned until 1988. The economy has become one of the “Tigers” of East Asia, delivering great prosperity to the people and pushing Taiwan to the forefront in the development of many technologies. No one wants to see those accomplishments wasted, which is precisely what a declaration of independence would do.
China is a vast, sprawling country, but one thing unites almost all Chinese: belief in their nation’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty over Taiwan. One survey reported that more than 95 percent of respondents supported the use of military force to take Taiwan. No government in Beijing could survive if it allowed the island to declare independence.
While Beijing’s tough rhetoric has paid dividends — everyone knows the price to be paid for departing from the status quo — it now presents two difficulties. First, it could encourage hardliners to push for still more accommodations by the new government in Taipei. The nationalists on the mainland are apt to see concessions as a result of weakness, not strength. That would be a mistake. Mr. Chen has gone as far as he can to appease Beijing without alienating his party and the voters.
The second problem is the bright line that has been drawn. A commentary in the People’s Daily last week said that conciliatory remarks by the new president are “meaningless” without recognition of the “one-China principle.” That may be the Beijing’s leadership political judgment, but it plainly is not true. In addition to his policy reversals, Mr. Chen has gone further than any previous leader of Taiwan and advocated direct trade, postal and travel links with China. There is a basis for talks between China and Taiwan, but the government in Beijing must seize the opportunity. The initial reaction from China hints that it might be willing to do just that. A statement from the Communist Party Central Committee said the two sides could hold dialogue after expressing commitment to the key principle of “one-China” in “their own way.”
It would not be difficult. Mr. Koo Chen-fu, Taiwan’s top negotiator with China, has agreed to stay in his post to help the new government. His familiar face should facilitate discussions with the mainland.
Moreover, Mr. Chen has no desire to push for a confrontation with China. His priorities are domestic: putting together a working government (which will be no easy task after 50 years of KMT rule), strengthening the island’s economy, and cleaning up the corruption in Taiwanese politics. Achieving those goals would be as notable as his inauguration on Saturday — and just as important for all Chinese.
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