Hopes that Taiwan’s president, Mr. Chen Shui-bian, might alter course and reach out to China were shattered last week. Mr. Chen’s New Year address made plain that he remains as combative as ever, despite having lost the upper hand in cross-strait relations with Beijing in 2005. The president’s determination will gratify the faithful in his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but it is likely to dismay many other Taiwanese, as well as Taiwan’s friends throughout the world.
The year 2005 was a bad one for Mr. Chen. The December 2004 Legislative Yuan election victory for the opposition parties should have sent a message to the president that his hard line on relations with China was no substitute for good governance and solving the very real problems that Taiwan faces. The determined efforts of the opposition to oppose every government initiative no doubt made his job harder, but a president is nevertheless supposed to lead. The failure to assuage citizens’ concerns was felt again in last month’s local elections.
The opposition was aided by Beijing’s energetic efforts to reach out to it while marginalizing the president. Mr. Lien Chen and Mr. James Soong, heads of the Nationalist KMT and the People’s First Party, respectively, visited the mainland during 2005 and were greeted effusively by the Chinese Communist Party leadership, including Chinese President Hu Jintao. (The two men visited as heads of their parties.)
The mainland’s enthusiasm for their visits and the “gifts” provided by the CCP leadership, such as the elimination of tariffs on some agricultural imports and the promise of two pandas, helped alter China’s image among Taiwanese. Most significantly, the visits signaled that Taiwan’s opposition might manage relations better with the mainland — precisely the message the Chinese wanted to send.
Mr. Chen reacted to the opposition’s gains with restraint. After some initial hesitation, administration officials explained that they wanted to improve relations with the government on the other side of the strait, but complained that Beijing was unwilling to deal with the government in Taipei. In fact, both governments were posturing, arguing that they were prepared to discuss issues when each had imposed conditions on negotiations that it knew the other was unprepared to accept.
The president cast off his restraint in his New Year message. In it, he warned Taiwanese business against counting too heavily on investment on the mainland, asserting that it created dangerous dependence and vulnerability. He also decried the growing military threat posed by the Chinese military against Taiwan. To guard against the former, Mr. Chen said the government would more closely regulate cross-strait economic exchange.
That promises to be an uphill battle. Taiwanese businesses have invested more than $100 billion on the mainland — the actual figure could be twice that. According to the president, more than 20 percent of all orders for manufactured goods placed with Taiwanese companies are filled by factories outside Taiwan, with China accounting for 90 percent of them.
In the first 10 months of 2005, cross-strait trade rose 15.9 percent over the previous year, reaching $58.58 billion. Trade with the mainland accounted for 19.1 percent of Taiwan’s total trade during that time, up 1.1 percentage points from the previous year. With the Chinese economy growing more than twice as fast as Taiwan’s, few Taiwanese businesses want to lose out on that market opportunity.
More worrisome was Mr. Chen’s repeat of his wish to write a new constitution for Taiwan before his term ends in 2008. China is convinced that such talk is a smoke screen for a declaration of independence, a goal that it believes Mr. Chen wants to achieve during his presidency. Mr. Chen reiterated his promise to hold a referendum on the new constitution during 2007, if possible. Chinese leaders have long maintained that a Taiwanese declaration of independence is one of the red lines that could spark a war. Mr. Chen’s comments about the expanding mainland missile threat are proof that the People’s Liberation Army is preparing for conflict.
The president’s speech was designed to rally the faithful in his own party. Overall, though, his popularity rating dropped to a record low 13 percent after the address. Taiwanese voters understand their position: They chafe at the restrictions that have been imposed on them and yearn for more dignity and respect in the world. But they are pragmatic enough to know that precipitous action could jeopardize all that they have accomplished.
If Mr. Chen wants to win their support, he should focus on challenges closer to home, such as ending corruption and putting the economy on firm footing. That is the surest way to protect his legacy. The time to do so is running out.
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