Newsweek

Offering an Olive Twig

March 7th, 2005

By George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Adams


Taiwan's outspoken leader imagines a possible peace.

March 7 issue He's a leader in search of a legacy. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, often blamed for destabilizing Asia with his fiercely independent rhetoric, now says he wants to talk peace with China. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, he offered to consider a plan to freeze the cross-strait status quo for a generation. Perhaps more remarkably, he dared to imagine a day when Taiwan and China might unify on equal terms. The catch: China must democratize first, and achieve parity in living standards. Chen spoke with NEWSWEEK's George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Adams at the Presidential Office in Taipei. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your critics say you've contributed to cross-strait tension by being needlessly provocative. CHEN: Over the past 400 years we have experienced various rulers, including different ethnic groups, foreign governments, autocrats and colonial powers. Beijing should understand that the [anti-China] referendum and protests last year only reflect the people's love for our homeland. Some want to misrepresent such events as provocative gestures. But they have overlooked the aspirations of Taiwan's 23 million people to be the masters of their own land, and the fact that China has deployed 706 ballistic missiles, targeting us. Should Taiwan just raise a white flag and surrender?

Political leaders on Taiwan have said that they reject China's "one-country, two-systems" formula for unification. Are any aspects of it acceptable?
We do hope that Taiwan's democracy could serve as a lighthouse for China. We also hope the mainland will become democratic, even more so than Taiwan is today. But China lacks important elements like elections, multiparty politics and a neutral military. We hope to see only one system everywhere, and that is the democratic system.

What did you achieve by meeting [Taiwanese opposition leader] James Soong this week?
The meeting has proven that anything is possible, [even] reconciliation between the ruling party and opposition.

Your joint declaration reiterated past pledges not to declare independence or abandon the name Republic of China.
The other side of the strait has kept trying to twist my words and mislead the inter-national community. They claim I have a timetable for independence and that I intend to change the national moniker. So I took the opportunity yesterday to reiterate my promises.

China is debating a new Anti-Secession Law [that could mandate military action against Taiwan if it declared independence]. How would that impact Taiwan?
We might not be able to change Beijing's decision, but we still want to express deep concern. This year we successfully arranged charter flights [from the mainland to Taiwan] for the Lunar New Year holiday, signifying that cross-strait relations are making advancements, [like] flowers blossoming in the spring. But if they insist on passing the anti-secession law, it would be like casting a shadow and causing torrential rains. Groups in Taiwan have started talking about enacting counterlegislation like an anti-annexation law. Is this the result Beijing authorities want to achieve?

Kenneth Lieberthal, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton on East Asia, suggested that Taiwan and China delay a final resolution of the island's status for a generation to avoid war. During that period, Taipei would agree not to declare independence and Beijing would agree not to use force against the island. Is that a viable option?
Any sort of peace agreementólong term, short term, midtermówe're willing to discuss and talk about. Not long ago I met with Ken Lieberthal. He had made some adjustments to his original proposal that removed preconditions or predetermined outcomes. Based on that I feel it is worthy of our consideration.

Can you envision a future in which Taiwan and China unify?
If one day the people of Taiwan choose to unify with China, it must be done [after] their political situations [achieve] complete synergy, in which both sides enjoy democratic elections, multiparty politics, a truly neutral military [and] freedom of speech. Moreover, by then the average income in China should be about that of the people in Taiwan.

Lieberthal suggests setting aside sensitive cross-strait issues for 30 years. Do you have a time frame in mind?
Thirty years is just a proposed time frame. If by then China has not achieved a mature democracy, we could delay it to 50 or 100 years. Why not?