Taiwan and China
Interview with President Chen Shui-bian
19 May 2005
President Chen downplays talk of better ties with China—but there is hope of making the status quo more durable
THE visits to China by the leaders of Taiwan's two biggest opposition parties in late April and early May have been hailed in China, and more guardedly by America, as a welcome easing of tensions across the Taiwan strait. One man, though, takes a much more cautious view. He is Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian.
“[The Chinese] want to split Taiwan, incite Taiwan and create divisions in Taiwan in order to achieve their political aim of isolating the Taiwan government, including President Ah-bian,” says Mr Chen, referring to himself by his nickname. He accuses Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and James Soong of the far smaller People First Party (PFP) of being “very naďve” in their expectations of China's willingness to compromise, and criticises them for allegedly failing to stress Taiwan's sovereignty during their trips.
Mr Chen is clearly relieved by his party's performance in elections last weekend to an ad-hoc assembly that is being convened in order to pass constitutional amendments. With both the KMT and Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporting the amendments—which will halve the number of legislators and simplify the way they are elected—few saw much need to brave the rain. But of those who did, more voted for the DPP or its even more China-sceptic ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, than for the KMT or the PFP, which favour conciliation.
In an interview with The Economist, Mr Chen said on May 17th that the results showed that what he calls the recent “China fever” in Taiwan is on the wane. China's refusal yet again to allow Taiwan into the World Health Organisation during a meeting of its governing assembly in Geneva this week has made people “clearer” after a period in which many had “illusions” about China.
Mr Chen's downbeat appraisal of cross-strait relations is not surprising. He has been attacked by his own camp for having switched from initial hostility to the opposition-party visits to tentative endorsement (only, many believe, because America, Taiwan's only military backer, made clear its support). The visits evinced much goodwill rhetoric from China, but no clear commitment to engage directly with Mr Chen's government.
But 56 years into their stand-off, and six years after China suspended cross-strait dialogue in pique over Taiwan's insistence that it was just as much a country as China, there are signs that both sides are trying to find ways of talking again.
The most difficult issue is how to circumvent China's insistence that Taiwan accept the principle that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a province. Before Mr Chen took office in 2000, it was possible for Taiwan to finesse this by accepting the idea of one China, but explaining this in terms of Taiwan's constitution, which suggests the island is part of a Republic of China, just not the communist People's Republic of China. Mr Chen, however, has refused to support the “one China” notion, seeing it as undermining the sovereignty he believes is enjoyed by the island of Taiwan itself.
A consensus reached last week between China's President Hu Jintao and the PFP's Mr Soong coined a new term, “two sides [of the strait], one China” as a basis for talks. This appeared to be an attempt to suggest equality between Taiwan and the mainland. However, Mr Chen's initial reaction is not encouraging. The term, says the former lawyer, is a “step backwards” because it does not actually suggest that any differing interpretations of “one China” are allowed.
But Mr Chen himself shrinks from using terms that have riled China in the past, such as “one state on each side” or “state-to-state relations [between Taiwan and China]”. It is better, he says, “to speak less about sovereignty”. He, like the opposition leaders, calls for maintenance of an undefined status quo. China too appeared to shift in this direction, saying in its agreement with Mr Soong that war could be avoided as long as there was no chance of a move by Taiwan toward formal independence. In other words, it seemed to imply, the status quo would be tolerable. In the past, China has threatened war against Taiwan simply for refusing to talk.
After the failure of the DPP and its allies to gain a majority in a parliamentary election last December, China has even less reason to worry about Mr Chen using his remaining three years in office to affirm the island's independence through changes to the constitution. The revisions likely to be adopted in the next few weeks will require any further constitutional changes to have the support of three-quarters of the legislature and a majority of voters in a referendum. In Taiwan's current political makeup, this would make it all but impossible to adopt a constitution making independence explicit.
Mr Chen says that after 2008, when his term ends, he wants to be remembered as having protected Taiwan from being annexed by China and becoming “a second Hong Kong”. For all its sometimes menacing talk, China does not appear anxious to prevent him fulfilling his wish.