TAIWAN: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Chen: Almost over, but not out
, March 1, 2008
President Chen Shui-bian, set to retire in May, is showing Beijing that he is no lame-duck leader, writes Jeffry Babb.President Chen Shui-bian has asserted his authority and signalled he is no lame duck with a historic trip to the Spratly Islands. Despite the fact that Taiwan's presidential election takes place in just over a month and his party lags woefully in the polls, Chen has proved he can still make waves.
The possibility that Taiwan might hold a referendum to change its official name from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan, or something similar, in conjunction with the presidential election on March 22, has been exercising the minds of foreign ministries around the world, including that of Australia.
Taiwan, although self-governing and independent in all but name, maintains that it is part of China in order to keep the peace with Beijing. The People's Republic of China asserts that the island is an inalienable part of China and refuses to rule out the use of force should Taipei take steps towards a formal declaration of independence. Backing up the communist power's threat are hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan's military installations and main population centres.Cross-strait links
President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is pro-independence, but the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is seeking better relations with the giant across the Taiwan Strait. The KMT has been pushing for "three links" across the Strait - direct air, telecommunications and postal links. The DPP has taken some "baby steps" towards better cross-strait links, such as recently allowing a cruise ship carrying some mainland passengers to dock in the island's two main ports, but has done little else recently, despite pressure from commercial interests.
The scandal-ridden Chen administration represented the great hope of Taiwan's independence movement, but both he and the DPP are on the nose. Chen's approval rating is in the 20s, and the DPP's candidate in the March election, Frank Hsieh, trails the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou by 20 points.
In the recent national legislative elections, the DPP was reduced to a rump after the KMT won two-thirds of the seats in the parliament.
The DPP has a reputation for pulling a political rabbit out of the hat around election time, but Frank Hsieh's revelation that the KMT candidate Ma and his wife had held "green cards" - giving them permanent residence in the United States - did little to dent Ma's lead.
What has been raising concerns in the international community is the prospect that the Republic of China might change its name to "Taiwan" through a referendum held in conjunction with the presidential election.
Although a ballot on a related topic will be held, the nature of the referendum process in Taiwan means that this is very unlikely to pass. Indeed, it is almost certain to fail, as have other recent referendum initiatives.
The KMT's alternative proposition, that Taiwan "return to" or "join" the United Nations as "the Republic of China" has better prospects; but the people of Taiwan have shown themselves in their short history of constitutional change by referendum to be as reluctant as Australians to pursue constitutional revision by ballot.
While mainland China has been relatively restrained in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, which begin in August, Taiwan's foreign representatives have been warned to prepare for a renewed diplomatic offensive in the two years following the Games.
The communist giant, however, has applied continual pressure on Taipei's several dozen official diplomatic allies to break links with Taiwan. Taipei's diplomats say that this ongoing campaign is aimed at reducing Taiwan's "international space".
President Chen's visit to the Spratly Islands in early February should be seen in this context. The Spratly archipelago is in the South China Sea and is claimed, in part or whole, not only by Taiwan, but also by mainland China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The area has rich fishing grounds and is believed to have considerable oil and gas resources. Taiwan occupies the largest island in the archipelago with a garrison of a few dozen men, and Chen inaugurated the new airstrip there. Vietnam and the Philippines protested against Chen's trip. Chen was accompanied by several destroyers from the Republic of China Navy and escorted by F-16 warplanes.Home-grown defence
Taiwan's clear demonstration of long-range force projection was aimed, at least in part, to show the world - and communist China in particular - that Taiwan should not be taken lightly. Taiwan has also deployed home-grown anti-ship missiles in the Taiwan Strait and other missile systems.
Chen, facing mandatory retirement in May after serving two terms as president, is showing Beijing it can expect a fight if push comes to shove in the Taiwan Strait.
In all, however, adventurism is unlikely, and the near-certain election of Ma in the March presidential election should lower the temperature.- Jeffry Babb was until recently a Taipei-based journalist.