Taiwan and China
A calibrated provocation
But China has not fallen into the trap
02 March 2006
IN THE elaborate fiction that governs relations across the Taiwan Strait, there exists in Taiwan a body called the National Unification Council, whose notional aim is to advise the president on how the island and the mainland are to unite, an aim which China and Taiwan notionally share. The body has been inactive for six years. But when President Chen Shui-bian appeared to scrap it this week, he caused anger in China, and worry in America.
Mr Chen has been weakened by scandals in his party but has two years left in office. Appealing to Taiwanese nationalism is one way to rally support. Hence the appeal of scrapping a body that is supposed to advise him on unification. But Mr Chen does not want to provoke China into a military response. So his decision was judiciously worded. The council, he said, had “ceased to function” and its guidelines had “ceased to apply”. This phrasing suggests the possibility of a future revival.
The careful wording was also partly intended to pacify America, which has been trying to persuade Mr Chen not to rock the boat since late January, when he signalled his intention to take this step. A spokesman for the State Department said America would “continue to hold President Chen by his commitments not to take unilateral moves”. He also said it was America's understanding that Mr Chen had not formally abolished the council.
For all its fulminations, however, China does not seem keen to escalate this particular dispute. President Hu Jintao accused Mr Chen of taking a “dangerous step” towards independence. But officials have not threatened to invoke an anti-secession law passed by China's legislature a year ago. That authorised military action against Taiwan in the event of undefined “major incidents” entailing the island's independence from China. The law has been described by Taiwanese officials as a threat to the status quo and, indeed, a primary justification for Mr Chen's decision.
A bigger worry for Chinese leaders is that Mr Chen might renege on other pledges not to amend the island's constitution. He may suggest that China is a separate country. Worse, he may change Taiwan's official name (the Republic of China). China does not officially accept this name for Taiwan, but much prefers it to the Republic of Taiwan. Given the distinct possibility that the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) will reclaim Taiwan's presidency in 2008, Mr Chen might feel tempted to risk a dramatic gesture in order to rally support for his party.
But as Mr Chen noted this week, any constitutional reform would, under rules introduced last year, require approval by three-quarters of the legislature as well as a referendum. With the KMT and its supporters—who favour keeping on good terms with China and keeping the council—controlling a majority of parliament's seats, this would make it hard to introduce an amendment China strongly disliked. Mr Chen wants a constitutional referendum next year, but has not so far proposed any changes that would rile the Chinese.
An escalation of rhetoric can be expected in the next few days as China's legislature holds its annual meeting, starting on March 6th. Nationalistic outbursts from the Communist Party-picked delegates have become part of the ritual. Unlike the meeting last year at which the anti-secession law was adopted, the focus of this year's agenda will be domestic: in particular a new five-year economic plan which is aimed at reducing a growing gap between rich and poor. But just to be sure that Taiwan stays in line, the meeting will surely engage in another of its annual rituals, a hefty increase in military spending.