HONG KONG — When Chen Shui-bian ran for president of Taiwan more than two years ago, he distanced himself from his political party, the proindependence Democratic Progressive Party, promising he would be president of all the people of the island, regardless of political affiliation. But on July 21, President Chen was sworn in as party chairman.
Of course, political leaders often break promises made during election campaigns, but it is particularly difficult for Chen to wear two hats — that of state president and party chief — because his party’s political platform calls for the overthrow of the state that he now heads. The DPP platform calls for setting up an independent Republic of Taiwan to replace the Republic of China.
This provision is why China refuses to have any dealings with the party, as China is committed to eventual reunification with Taiwan. This being the case, Chen’s repeated offers of talks with China — including sending a DPP delegation to the mainland for talks — have fallen on deaf ears.
It certainly hasn’t escaped China’s attention that, on the day that he became DPP chairman, Chen issued a thinly veiled threat that Taiwan would “go its own way” if the mainland did not respond to his “good will.” However, senior DPP officials have played down the significance of the president’s remarks, describing them as his response to Beijing for having lured the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru into its fold.
As it happened, Nauru’s defection from Taipei to Beijing was announced on the day of Chen’s inauguration as party chairman, a development that some in Taiwan believe was a timed insult. The loss of Nauru cuts the number of countries with which Taiwan has diplomatic relations to only 27. Most of these are poor and insignificant. Poverty-afflicted Nauru has little more than 10,000 people.
Taiwan immediately accused Beijing of dollar diplomacy, saying China had promised Nauru almost $140 million in aid. Dollar diplomacy is an art form that Taiwan has practiced for decades. In fact, Taiwan is asking Nauru to repay $12.1 million in loans. Two days after Nauru bolted, Taiwan announced a $55 million aid package for Haiti.
The Nauru debacle appears to have caused the Taiwan president to reassess his policy toward the mainland. On July 29, in addressing a group of business leaders, he again declared that Taiwan should stop having unrealistic expectations of China and that it must “go its own way.”
He also called on business leaders not to just focus on China but to invest in Southeast Asia. It is an appeal that is unlikely to be heeded. Taiwan business people by and large find that the mainland offers a much more hospitable business environment than Southeast Asia. In fact, China this year has surpassed the United States in becoming Taiwan’s largest export market.
The president’s veiled independence threat is not going down well with the Taiwan populace. According to a survey by the China Times newspaper, 53 percent of respondents were worried that Chen’s remarks showed he was leaning toward independence and thus risked triggering a war.
It is up to Chen, as Taiwan’s elected leader, to reflect the desires of the 23 million people of Taiwan. His frustration with Beijing is understandable, but he has no choice but to try to resume a dialogue with the mainland. One indispensable move for him is to remove the proindependence clause from the party platform.
Chen has tried to play down the significance of that clause by saying the DPP’s “1999 resolution regarding Taiwan’s future” was the party’s top principle regarding cross-strait issues. This resolution says Taiwan is a sovereign state whose name is the Republic of China, implying that there is no need for a declaration of independence. But this is not enough.
Now that he is party chairman, Chen is in a position to redefine the party’s position on China. He cannot, in good conscience, be both party chairman and state president without changing one or the other.
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