TAIWAN: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
President Chen's olive branch to Beijing
, June 5, 2004
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian was inaugurated for a second four-year term on May 20. President Chen, whose father was a poor farm labourer, rose from poverty to lead Taiwan, through sheer hard work and intelligence.
In his inauguration speech, Chen attempted to put to rest some of the controversy that dogged his recent presidential election campaign by reaching out to mainland China and the people of Taiwan - while taking into account the pro-independence faction that looks to him for a decisive break from the mainland.
What President Chen says and does is important, because the Taiwan Strait is an international flashpoint that could embroil the whole of Asia - and Australia too. Australia, however reluctantly, is likely to be dragged into any conflict between Taiwan and mainland China by virtue of the fact that the United States is the guarantor of security in the region - and Taiwan's in particular."Two countries"
Chen is too smart to spell out any notion of independence for Taiwan but he upholds a principle of "two countries on each side of the Taiwan Strait" as the basis for negotiation with Beijing.
Why does this talk of independence so rile Beijing? When the victorious Communists took charge of mainland China, the Nationalist government under President Chiang Kai-shek shifted its seat to Taipei. This was intended to be only temporary - and the Nationalist government, under President Chiang, fully expected to return as the government of all China. Chiang and the Nationalists never renounced their claim to be the government of all China - not only Taiwan. For many years the official seat of the Nationalist government was Nanjing in south China, not even Taipei.
While the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, was in power, the government in Beijing and the government in Taipei could agree on one thing: that China was one country and that it would eventually be unified.
The last Kuomintang president of the Republic of China was Lee Teng-hui. Lee shattered this consensus with his "special state to state" theory. This effectively ended the negotiations that had been going on at a semi-official level to bring some sort of reconciliation to the two sides.
China has been firm that the government in Taiwan must recognise the "one China" principle for progress to be made at a political level.
At the non-political level, change has been substantial. Taiwan investors have poured some US$100 billion into mainland China, and have led the way in developing the mighty Chinese export machine. Trade between the two sides is booming with some US$30 billion in Taiwan exports going to mainland China, which has now replaced the United States as Taiwan's main trading partner.
In his inauguration address, Chen was careful to steer away from any talk of independence, but did not make any concessions to the "one China" principle.
He did, however, put back the date of any decision on a new constitution for Taiwan until the year he leaves office, 2008, and said that any constitutional change would be undertaken by a reconstituted National Assembly, and not by referendum, which had alarmed the United States and riled mainland China.
Taiwan's leading English-language daily newspaper, The China Post
, commented in its editorial following Chen's speech that "Chen's speech, mild in tone, was clearly designed to placate all those who had doubts about his intentions.
"Above all, Chen made an attempt to pacify the rulers in Beijing, who had been highly distrustful of him although he once promised not to declare independence."
Present Chen is a highly skilled and talented political operator, and it seems likely that the inauguration speech will reassure both friend and foe about his intentions. China, however, will want to see actions rather than words from President Chen.
In the days before the inauguration speech, the rulers in Beijing at a very high level said they would prevent moves toward independence in Taiwan "at any cost," but offered rewards if Taiwan accepted it was part of China. The statement was from the Communist Party's Office for Taiwan Affairs and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council.
In Beijing's fiercely worded statement, carried by the official Xinhua news agency, Taiwan rulers were told they must choose between recognising the island as part of China, or "following their separatist agenda to cut Taiwan from the rest of China and, in the end, meet their own destruction by playing with fire."
Beijing held out an offer of direct trade and transport links and increased trade ties if the Taipei Government fell into line and acknowledged that Taiwan was part of "one China".
However, no one would win an election in Taiwan any more with a platform for unification with China.
Chen has changed one thing, and that is that the people of Taiwan would never accept a one-sided deal - especially as the example for Taiwan of the "one country, two systems" model in Hong Kong is under attack from Beijing.