Taiwan Leader Questions Unification
September 1, 2000
By Mark Landler
TAIPEI, Taiwan, -- Since he came to power in May, Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian, has labored to persuade China that he is not a wild-eyed separatist, driven by dreams of Taiwanese independence.
But Mr. Chen's charm offensive has come to an abrupt end. In an interview here today, he took a harder line toward the Chinese government on the crucial issue of when -- or even whether -- Taiwan and China will be unified.
Mr. Chen said his remarks were not a shift in his position. But they are a radical break from the guiding policy of the Nationalist Party, which ruled Taiwan for 55 years until Mr. Chen's election.
Although Mr. Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, antagonized China in the last year of his term by asserting that Taiwan and China ought to negotiate as equals, his party adhered to the National Unification guidelines, which have as their ultimate goal the unification of Taiwan and China.
"The KMT government made unification the only possible conclusion for Taiwan's future, the only resolution of cross-strait relations," said Mr. Chen, using the initials for the Nationalist Party's Chinese name, Kuomintang. "This way of handling it is contrary to public opinion."
He said a majority of Taiwan's 23 million people opposed unification with China, at least under the terms Beijing has proposed.
Mr. Chen's remarks are likely to anger the Chinese government, which views him with deep suspicion because of his record as an advocate of Taiwanese independence. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has fought to deny it recognition as a sovereign state in the international community.
"This does make it seem like he's backtracked on all his goodwill gestures," said Antonio Chiang, the publisher of The Taipei Times, an English-language newspaper that has supported Mr. Chen.
Opponents of the president said his tougher tone could upset the tenuous stability in cross-strait relations that he has achieved. "As long as both sides were willing to work toward reunification, but without a timetable, there was fragile ground for mutual trust," said Ma Ying-jeou, the mayor of Taipei and a Nationalist leader. "When the president says reunification is only one option, he opens a Pandora's box."
But for Mr. Chen, talking softly has had limits. By pledging in his inauguration speech not to declare independence, the president probably defused a confrontation across the Taiwan Strait. But China has dismissed Mr. Chen's subsequent overtures as empty gestures unworthy of reply.
The Chinese government has also tried to isolate Mr. Chen by inviting Taiwan business executives and academics to Beijing, while studiously ignoring the president. "These tactics of divide and conquer are pervasive," Mr. Chen said. "Not only are they trying to divide the parties, they are also trying to divide the government and the private sector."
Mr. Chen made his status harder to ignore last month when he made a 13-day tour of Central American and African countries that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan. His trip included a stopover in Los Angeles, where Congressmen sympathetic to Taiwan tried to arrange meetings with him. Under pressure from the Clinton Administration, Mr. Chen demurred.
Mr. Chen said today that he still planned to push for closer economic links between Taiwan and China, which had been one of his campaign themes. But he cautioned that negotiations on direct links in trade and transportation could not be divorced from larger political issues.
While Mr. Chen's election was a stunning victory over the Nationalists, he won with only 39 percent of the vote. And with Taiwan's legislature dominated by the losing party, Mr. Chen's government has little muscle. Critics accuse it of incompetence and legislative paralysis.
Mr. Chen has even been criticized by officials of his own Democratic Progressive Party. Political analysts said his sharper tone toward China is also calculated to shore up his domestic support.
Despite the drumbeat of criticism, Mr. Chen seems unruffled. Looking relaxed and speaking forcefully at the end of a long week, the 49-year-old president said Taiwan was going through a natural period of unpheaval as it adjusted to the first government in its history drawn from the opposition.
"After five months, some people are not psychologically adjusted to this change," Mr. Chen said. "Those who support us have high expectations. Those who don't like us hope there will be chaos."