Not so fast, Mr Chen
Independence on hold
16 December 2004
THE Americans are breathing a sigh of relief. Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), known for riling China with its feisty assertions of the island's independence, has surprisingly failed to achieve its goal of capturing a legislative majority to match its control of the presidency. President Chen Shui-bian's China-baiting may well have deterred voters from giving the DPP its prize. And America's obvious irritation with Mr Chen would not have helped him either.
Although it makes no real difference to his power, Mr Chen has resigned from his concurrent post as DPP chairman in apology for the outcome of the December 11th general election. The DPP seemingly had everything going for it: a narrow second-term victory for Mr Chen in the presidential race in March with a much increased share of the vote, and a fractious opposition led by a serial election loser with little charisma, Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT). Opinion polls suggested that the DPP and its allies (the "pan-greens", as they are dubbed) would break the nearly 60-year grip on the legislature held by the KMT and its friends (the "pan-blues").
The result was only a modest gain by the pan-greens. Their share of the vote rose to 46%, compared with 41% in the last parliamentary polls in 2001. The pan-blues, who are somewhat more conciliatory towards China, held steady at nearly 50%. But this translated into a mere one-seat gain for the pan-greens, and a one-seat loss for the pan-blues. Factoring in the leanings of independents, the pan-blues could wield a majority of as many as 21 seats.
Many analysts believe Mr Chen would have done better had he not overplayed his hand. Sensing growing public support for a separate Taiwanese identity from the Chinese mainland (Taiwan is in effect independent, but its constitution suggests it is part of a notional non-communist China), Mr Chen infuriated the Chinese by using the campaign to call for a clearer line to be drawn between the two. He said Taiwan should pursue its attempt to join the United Nations under the name of Taiwan, instead of the island's official title, the Republic of China. He called for Taiwan's state-controlled enterprises to use Taiwan in their names instead of China. He suggested that Taiwan's surrogate embassies abroad use the name Taiwan rather than the less attention-grabbing word, Taipei. And, most worrying to China, he called for a new constitution to be adopted by a referendum in 2006.
Never mind that this was largely posturing. Taiwan will never join the United Nations unless China, a veto-wielding member, agrees. It cannot change the names of its offices abroad without risking punitive action by host countries (such as denial of visas). And the DPP cannot adopt and put to a referendum a constitution reflecting Taiwan's independence without an unattainable 75% backing in the legislature. Even if Mr Chen decided to ignore the law and go straight to a referendum, voters might well fail to approve it, given the inevitable opposition of China and America.
Taiwan is well used to China's bellicosity, but America's growing disdain for Mr Chen's rhetoric and unpredictability is unsettling to many. Without America's military and moral support, Taiwan would have to face China on its own. America is worried that Mr Chen's assertiveness could trigger a Chinese attack and drag America into war with a nuclear power--bad enough at any time, but the more so with Iraq and North Korea to worry about. Since last year, President Bush and other officials have delivered several barely veiled public put-downs of Mr Chen. Earlier this month, a State Department spokesman said the proposed name changes "would appear to unilaterally change Taiwan's status" and that America opposed this.
Mr Chen's more radical supporters accused the Americans of interfering in Taiwan's affairs. But the election turnout was, by Taiwan's standards, low, at 59%, compared with 66% in 2001. Mr Chen's setback is likely to moderate his language somewhat, but whether China will at last swallow its contempt for him and soften its own rhetoric is more questionable. The election may have succeeded in convincing China that tough talk and putting pressure on America to rein in Taiwan can bring results.