Int'l Herald Tribune

Pro-Independence Sentiment Grows With Taiwan's Democracy

Monday, August 13, 2001

Su Chi-- IHT

Taipei -- For many years, relations across the Taiwan Strait have been framed largely by China and the United States. Enter Taiwan's democratization, and the picture changes.

Democracy has put down increasingly deep roots in Taiwan in recent years. The process involves greater public participation in politics as well as opening the island to the outside world. The transfer of power from the Nationalists' Kuomintang to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party after last year's general election was widely acclaimed as a sign that democracy was maturing.

Sensitive to the strength of concerns of both China and the United States about any moves toward independence, President Chen Shui-bian's administration has refrained from frontal assault in that direction since taking office in May 2000. But forces in favor of more Taiwanization and more "Taiwan independence" are gathering in the name of democratization, even though this causes disquiet among many on the island.

For instance, no official at any level of Mr. Chen's government, including the president, declares him or herself to be "Chinese." They refer to themselves as "Taiwanese" or "quasi-Chinese."

On the independence issue, the government has abolished the Kuomintang goal of "unification under democracy" but carefully avoided stating its own preference.

On the thorny one-China issue, the Democratic Progressive Party's long-standing position is that "Taiwan is Taiwan, China is China," implying that Taiwan is not part of China. But to avoid directly challenging Beijing's "one-China principle" and Washington's "one-China policy," Mr. Chen's administration has tried not to deal directly with the issue.

So much so that Taipei now denies the existence of the so-called 1992 consensus, which made it possible to hold the first high-level meeting between representatives of Beijing and Taipei, in Singapore in 1993. In 1992, the Kuomintang government had accepted the concept of "one China" but rejected Beijing's definition, which would place Taiwan as a province. Last year Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party rejected the concept itself.

To Beijing and many in Taiwan, such changes touch on core values and interests. China has warned that it cannot rule out the use of force against Taiwan if the island moves toward independence or keeps delaying reunification talks. The resulting stalemate has deepened the divide between Beijing and Taipei and caused an increasing polarization of society in Taiwan. This tension and uncertainty have contributed to the sharp downturn of the economy. The picture is further complicated by the formation of a new political grouping, whose orientation is both nativist and anti-Chinese. Its spiritual leader is none other than the former president Lee Teng-hui. His Taiwan Solidarity Union was formally launched this Sunday. If, as is widely rumored, it is to join forces with the governing Democratic Progressive Party before or after elections in December for Parliament, the impact on cross-Strait relations would be enormous.

China would face a situation more serious than anything it had to deal with when Mr. Lee was president, including the statement he made in 1999 calling for a "special state-to-state relationship" between China and Taiwan. As a result, a confrontation with Taiwan is likely. The combination of saber rattling and divisive politics will drive the island's economy deeper into recession. The rest of Asia will watch with mounting alarm.

To stop the dangerous slide, Beijing ought to reflect on its self-fulfilling prophecy of treating nearly every step of democratization as a move toward Taiwan's independence. And those in Taiwan who have power and seem determined to use it to promote the cause of independence should consider the consequences.

The writer, who teaches at the China Institute of Tamkang University in Taipei, served until May 2000 as chairman of the cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan's government. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.