TAIPEI — The honeymoon is over for Taiwan’s new president, Chen Shui-bian. Just over a month after taking office, the man hailed as the champion of the island’s independence movement has been branded a heretic by critics within his own party. Analysts in Taipei believe his willingness to pander to pressure from the Clinton administration will eventually trap the island into a reunification deal with China from which it cannot escape.
The storm of criticism was prompted by Chen’s statement to a visiting U.S. delegation last week that his government was prepared to resurrect an age-old, and contentious, formula that may allow Taipei and Beijing to begin talking again after years of formal silence, in which the two sides have come close to war. In effect, Chen appeared to acknowledge for the first time that he was prepared to return to a 1992 consensus forged between Beijing and the previous Nationalist government, whereby the two sides agreed to disagree on the meaning of “one China” and shelve their decades-old dispute on Taiwan’s status.
Washington is desperate to see the two sides put aside their differences and work toward a peaceful settlement of the island’s status, because the United States could easily be drawn into a war in the Taiwan Strait.
Chen’s election victory in March has only served to increase tensions. The mainland government has branded Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party has made independence a key plank in its policy platform, a “dangerous” separatist who will bring war to the Taiwan Strait. Since taking office, however, Chen has appeared anything but.
In his inauguration speech in May, Chen distanced himself from his party’s independence platform by promising not to hold a referendum on the issue unless China attacked. He has also promised not to enshrine into law former President Lee Teng-hui’s “state-to-state” comments or change the island’s official name — the Republic of China — to Taiwan, and has hinted that he is open to discussing a “future one China.” Last month he invited China’s President Jiang Zemin to a historic meeting that he said was inspired by the Korean leaders’ summit in Pyongyang.
But his overtures have fallen on deaf ears in Beijing, and have done little to appease the island’s nervous investors, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble.
His failure to effect any real change in the cross-strait standoff now appears to have led him to overplay his hand at home, where surveys suggest more than 60 percent of Taiwan’s 22 million people want to keep the island’s de facto independent status.
According to senior members of the Democratic Progressive Party, the president’s concession to Beijing last week — a position that government officials have since played down as “nothing new” — was a knee-jerk reaction to pressure applied by the Clinton administration.
“Since the election President Clinton has been dispatching one emissary after another to Taiwan,” said Parris Chang, a senior DPP lawmaker and chairman of the party’s national-defense policy group, on Monday. “These agents of persuasion have played both hard ball and soft. They have called on Taiwan to maintain a quiet tone, and, with an election due in the U.S., to keep things peaceful in the strait at all costs.”
In May, Raymond Burghardt, the de facto U.S. ambassador in Taiwan, assured local officials that the U.S. would abide by the will of the Taiwanese. “No one is going to negotiate over the heads of the people of Taiwan,” he said.
But whatever Chen’s motivation for his statement last week, the fallout has been substantial. Local newspapers have been scathing in their criticisms. An editorial in the daily Taipei Times last Thursday called his remarks “either an amazing mistake or a sign of weakness.”
A senior member of his own party, lawmaker Lin Cho-shui accused Chen of jeopardizing the island’s sovereignty.
“Chen Shui-bian’s statement is extremely dangerous — it’s very damaging for Taiwan,” he told local reporters last week. “Chen’s statement gives the impression that he accepts . . . communist China is the central government.”
Antonio Chiang, the publisher of a Taiwan news weekly and writer of the president’s inauguration speech in May, played down suggestions that Chen’s endless concessions to Beijing may encourage the communists’ dream to one day “reunify the motherland.” “I don’t think he has gone too far,” Chiang said last week. “He has said he is only willing to talk about the idea of ‘one China.’ He has taken no action.” Parris Chang was not so sure.
“I have no doubt that President Chen would not deliberately sell Taiwan out,” he said. “But there is a saying: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ This is my fear, and the fear of many now in the party. Beijing must now reciprocate Chen’s good will, before anything more is said. We cannot afford to be led around by the nose by the Clinton administration on this issue.”
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