Int'l Herald Tribune

China seeks to isolate Taiwan's president

By Joseph Kahn
The New York Times
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Taipei As Taiwan's two leading opposition figures begin consecutive visits to China over the next two weeks, the point of the exercise - for both sides - will be to advance a running campaign to isolate the island's vigorous independence movement.

The first of these visits is to begin Tuesday with the arrival of Lien Chan, chairman of the Nationalist Party, for an eight-day stay.

The Kuomintang, as the party is known, has long opposed the Communist government in Beijing but shares with it a desire to reduce the influence of Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president, and the governing Democratic Progressive Party, which favors independence for Taiwan.

Both opposition leaders, Lien and James Soong, heads of the pro-unification People First Party, are expected to meet President Hu Jintao and conduct the highest-level dialogue between the rivals since the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Beijing has not invited President Chen to visit the mainland and has ruled out opening a dialogue with him unless he accepts the "One China" formula under which Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan, a condition Chen has rejected.

But China's overture to the opposition groups put Chen's government on the defensive, forcing it to cede ground to politicians who tend to take a softer line on cross-Strait relations, Taiwanese officials and Chinese analysts said.

Hu, who consolidated his power as China's top leader late last year, has pursued a two-prong strategy to halt what the mainland sees as the steady drift toward formal independence by the island.

In early March, the Communist Party-controlled legislature passed a law pre-authorizing the use of force if Taiwan moved too far toward independence, a step that the United States, Taiwan's main ally, criticized as a provocation.

Hu's subsequent invitations to Taiwanese opposition leaders appear designed to show that China will use force only as a last resort and is willing to open new channels for dialogue with politicians he considers less offensive than Chen.

The Taiwan strategy has unfolded even as China has waged a populist campaign against Japan, which it accuses of whitewashing abuses it committed during World War II.

In both cases, Hu has combined assertive statements of China's national interests with flashy gestures and hands-on diplomacy that have belied his reputation as a cautious party apparatchik, analysts said.

Lien's trip, starting Tuesday, follows a lower profile but ground-breaking visit to the mainland by his deputy three weeks ago. Chen condemned that trip as a potentially illegal attempt to negotiate on behalf of the Taiwan government.

Soong has a separate trip scheduled to begin May 5.

"It is true that these trips are creating some turmoil in Taiwan politics," Joseph Wu, who heads Taiwan's official Mainland Affairs Council, said in a telephone interview. "They are part of China's long-standing tactic of creating divisions in Taiwan that it can exploit."

Wu said the government had warned Lien and Soong not to "sign agreements" that infringed on Taiwan's rights, which he said would violate Taiwanese law. Chen and Lien discussed the opposition leader's trip on Monday to avoid such misunderstandings, he said.

"If Lien Chan explains some facts to China's leaders about the reality in Taiwan, then we could turn a potential crisis into a positive good," said Wu, who oversees Taiwan's mainland relations.

Independence-leaning Taiwanese politicians have called Lien and Soong traitors for "selling out Taiwan." But the two appear to have calculated that the mood had shifted in favor of warmer cross-Strait ties and that they could get credit for helping to lower tensions.

Chinese officials have not commented publicly on the visits. But Jia Qinglin, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, promised deeper engagement with the island in a recent address.

"As long as it benefits the Taiwanese compatriots, as long as it helps enhance cross-Strait exchange, as long as it advances the peaceful reunification of the motherland, we will all try our very best to do it," he said.

Lien's trip is deeply symbolic because he heads the Nationalists, who governed all of China until Chiang Kai-shek, the party's longtime leader, lost a civil war against the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Lien will be the first party leader to step foot on the mainland since then.

The Nationalists lost their hold on Taiwan's presidency in 2000 and are now the largest opposition party.

Lien, a former vice president, has lost two presidential contests to Chen, most recently last year. But he led his party to an unexpected victory in legislative elections against Chen's Democratic Progressive Party in December.

His eight-day visit to the mainland includes an extended stay in Nanjing, the old Nationalist capital. He will also stop in Xian, his birthplace, and Shanghai.

In Beijing on Friday, Lien is scheduled to meet Hu and deliver an address at Beijing University.

The Nationalists have staked out a moderate position on cross-Strait relations, rejecting the mainland's demand for reunification but also opposing Chen's efforts to solidify the island's de facto independent status.

Lien has proposed negotiating a 50-year moratorium on changes in the current status quo that would rule out Taiwanese independence but also oblige the mainland to forswear the use of force against Taiwan.

"Now we must not harbor the old mindset of the 1930s or the 1950s," Lien said Monday before his departure. "The Chinese mainland has experienced dramatic changes both in politics and the economy over the past 18 years," Lien said. "We must face the changes."

China, in turn, is expected to offer some concessions during Lien's visit to ensure that he does not return home empty-handed. But there is no sign of a major shift in Beijing's approach, with Hu emphasizing a combination of economic incentives and military threats.

Chinese analysts say Beijing has engaged deeply in Taiwan's domestic politics in a bid to isolate the strongest supporters of independence and make Chen think twice about steps to legalize Taiwan's independence, such as re-writing sensitive passages in the Constitution.

Sun Shengliang, a top Taiwan expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said in a signed commentary in state-run media on Monday that the strategy was working. He hailed a "mainland fever" in Taiwan that has set off a race to improve cross-Strait relations between opposition parties, putting pressure on Chen.

Lien's trip, Sun said, will "prompt the Taiwanese public to be more cool-minded about cross-Strait ties and inject fresh momentum into "mainland fever" on the island."