ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan enters uncertain waters
, November 18, 2000
In a move eerily reminiscent of the last days of the ill-fated Whitlam administration, President of the Republic of China on Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian has united the opposition against him by his unilateral decision to cancel Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant.
The decision to cancel the plant was taken in the face of public opposition. A clear majority of voters wants the project to continue, even according even to polling by President Chen’s own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Polls in Taiwan are notorious for producing the outcome desired by the party commissioning the poll, but in this case, even the DPP poll confirms what everyone knew - that on a small, resource poor island like Taiwan, nuclear power is far better than the alternatives - if there are any in the short term.
Industrialists have almost been united in the support of the nuclear power plant, for which General Electric of the US is the main contractor.
The unofficial US representative in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan, has been scrupulously avoiding comment on the issue, saying was an internal issue for Taiwan. The AIT, however, has said it hopes and expects that the government-owned Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) honors its contractual commitment.
Despite the fact that it would seem counterproductive to antagonize GE, the world’s largest company, the opposition controlled legislature has said it will not allocate funds for compensation payments, which are likely to rune into billions of US dollars. The power plant is already one-third finished.
Chen’s party is still in a minority in the Legislature, and is likely to stay that way. Chen was elected with a minority of the popular vote. According to the Financial Times of London’s Mure Dickie, one of the island’s most respected foreign political observers, "Mr Chen’s job was never going to be easy: the 39 percent of the vote that carried him to victory is a limited political mandate."
The DPP’s Chen was elected in March and has only held power officially for five months. Chen defeated the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which has been in power for 50 years and was the fist opposition party to take government in the history of China. The DPP is a grab bag of ideologies which would be familiar to anyone one the left - anti-nuclear power, pro-economic intervention and a fierce localism. The DPP took office only because the opposition was divided between the KMT and the island’s most popular politician, the former Governor of Taiwan Province, James Soong.Hasty action
Chen’s precipitate decision, coming within half an hour of a conciliatory meeting with the defeated KMT presidential candidate and party chairman, Lien Chan, caused Lien Chan to talk of "bad manners" and achieved the impossible - putting Lien Chan and James Soong in negotiations to present a untied front to the DPP.
Chen is surrounded by a group of young advisers who helped him become a successful mayor of Taipei, the island’s capital and largest city. However, he made his reputation on a series of publicity stands and photo opportunities and many observers doubt whether Chen has the ability and experience to tackle the nation’s top job.
While even the DPP acknowledges that the island’s people are more worried about looming shortage of electricity for industry in the north of the island, and yet cancelled the nuclear power plant regardless, the same ideological bent could carry the island into war with mainland China.
The DPP’s sustaining political principle is Taiwan independence. Taiwan, while it acknowledged it was part of China, could at least mollify Beijing, the DPP’s policy of an independent Republic of Taiwan would send Beijing ballistic - literally, because it has hundreds of missiles aimed at the island.
Chen now faces either a recall motion, which would strip him of the presidency, or a vote of no confidence in his Cabinet in the Legislature, which a united opposition could carry easily.China question
As Chen is both head of government and head of state, there is no-one to sack him if he gets too far out of line — but then Australian doesn’t have the world’s most populous nation 100 kilometres away, with a stated intention of military intervention in if any declaration of independence is made.
Poll after poll has shown that the people of Taiwan prefer the current situation of de facto independence to formal independence or unification with the communist mainland.
While Taiwan’s economic statistics look rosy - unemployment is less than 3 percent and growth is in excess of 6 percent, the island is in danger of losing its competitive edge to mainland China, which is offering investors from Taiwan the freedom and incentives once offered in Taiwan.
China is likely to overtake Taiwan soon as the world’s thrid largest producer of information technology (IT) equipment - the industry that has given the island its enviable growth figures.
The people of Taiwan will forgive much, but losing money and jobs will cause Chen to go down as the man who cost the island its prosperity for a mess of ideology - in much the same way that the Whitlam venture threw Australia into economic turmoil, with effects still present, even after nearly 30 years.