Speaking across the Strait
Something old, something new
14 October 2004
CHEN SHUI-BIAN, Taiwan's president, had said that his National Day address on October 10th would be an "important" overture to China. But although some of it did indeed appear conciliatory, much was not. As Taiwan gears up for yet another round of elections--this time for the legislature in December--neither the president nor the Chinese across the strait are in a mood for big concessions.
Mr Chen has many audiences to play to: an angry and anxious China that sees Taiwan drifting towards independence, ardent supporters of his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who want nothing to do with the Chinese, others in Taiwan who fear a dangerous conflict is looming and foreign officials who worry that he is a maverick who could drag the United States into war. On the eve of Mr Chen's speech, President Jacques Chirac of France said during a visit to Beijing that tensions in the Taiwan strait were worsening. Any challenge to the balance (ie, moves by Mr Chen to assert formal independence) would be, he said, "very dangerous and detrimental to everyone".
The Americans, at least, expressed approval of Mr Chen's speech, which called for a resumption of structured talks with China that have been suspended since 1999. Such appeals by Taiwan are nothing new. But Mr Chen suggested the talks could be held on the same terms as the two sides' first contact in 1992. Although he did not spell out what this meant, his offer could mark a subtle shift. The DPP has, at least until now, rejected the view, held by opposition parties and by China, that the 1992 talks were based on a "consensus" of the two parties on how to handle the hotly disputed concept of "one China". According to this reported agreement, as the Taiwanese opposition sees it, they would both uphold the idea of "one China", but would offer their own interpretations of what it meant.
Unfortunately for the optimists, Mr Chen did not refer to "one China", nor even explicitly to any "consensus". And his speech was peppered with references to the separateness and smallness of Taiwan. "In Taiwan--a country of 36,000 square kilometres with effective governance and a sound political system--sovereignty is vested with the people," he said. To China, those are fighting words. It rejects the idea of the island as a country and likes to think that the Republic of China, as Taiwan officially calls itself, connotes some link with the vast mainland.
China has dismissed the speech as "provocative". But it would not have wanted to give Mr Chen a boost before the polls on December 11th. These are crucial for Mr Chen, who won a second term of office in March by a tiny margin in elections that are still being contested by the opposition as unfair. He wants to strengthen his mandate and to end the domination of the legislature by opposition parties that want a more conciliatory approach to China. With a presidential election also coming up in America, Taiwan's chief backer, China is in wait-and-see mode.
Mr Chen's other suggestions--arms-control measures, a formal end to hostilities, an agreed "code of conduct" in the Taiwan strait--are simply non-starters. China has shown no sign of willingness to reduce its build-up of missiles and other arms on the coast facing Taiwan. And Mr Chen is not about to upset the Americans by abandoning plans to purchase $18 billion-worth of American weaponry. Mr Chen said his officials were working on ways to establish flights across the strait, but China swiftly spurned that idea--repeating its insistence (unacceptable to Taiwan) that any such flights should be called "domestic". Little goodwill there.