New York Times


Nationalists on Taiwan try to regroup

By Mark Landler
July 12, 2001

Taipei, Taiwan-- July 7 -- When Taiwan's Nationalist Party was swept out of the presidency last year after 55 years, its leaders spent months in the political wilderness licking their wounds and falling out among themselves about who should take the blame for the defeat.

Now the party of Chiang Kai-shek is regrouping. In a bid to reclaim its place at the center of politics, the Nationalists have floated a new proposal about how to break the deadlock with China.

Rather than declare its independence or bow to unification, the party says, Taiwan should form a confederation with China. Each side would keep control over domestic and diplomatic affairs, including the military. But they would live under "the same roof." The two could then hammer out a more formal integration.

"The government has not proposed any new directions," the chairman of the Nationalists, Lien Chan, said in an interview. "So we see this as one of the choices. It is not the only option, but it is an option."

Mr. Lien, who was defeated in the presidential election by an opposition leader, Chen Shui-bian, said the proposal steered a middle course between Mr. Chen's party, which formally endorses independence, and pro-unification factions, which have gained some popular support here in recent months.

"The KMT is a centrist party," Mr. Lien said, using the initials for its Chinese name, Kuomintang. "We are based on the status quo."

Experts say that far from anchoring the political debate, the proposal could inject a combustible new element into it. In proposing a confederation, the party has clearly rejected the policy of its former leader and Taiwan's retired president, Lee Teng-hui.

Mr. Lee had called for Taiwan to negotiate with China on a "special state-to-state" basis, a formula that outraged China's leaders because, they said, it suggested that Taiwan was veering toward independence.

China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that has to be unified with the mainland. Its preferred solution is not confederation, but "one country, two systems," the arrangement under which it took control of Hong Kong, the former British colony, in 1997.

"Nobody talks about `special state to state' anymore," said Su Chi, a former chairman of the Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council, who drafted the Nationalists' confederation proposal.

Mr. Su said his proposal would be debated at the party's annual congress on July 29 and 30. If approved, it would become part of the Nationalist platform to be used by candidates who are running in legislative elections in December.

By spurning Mr. Lee's policy, the Nationalists may have driven him into the arms of their longtime rival, Mr. Chen. Mr. Lee, 78, has thrown his support behind the president and given his tacit endorsement to a new party that will ally with Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.

"Increasingly, people on this island have become polarized on the issue of how we approach our gigantic neighbor," said Chu Yun-han, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University.

On one side are those, like Mr. Chen and Mr. Lee, who favor keeping distance from China. On the other side are those, like the Nationalists, who believe that some type of integration is inevitable.

The Nationalists are quite likely to be joined by Taiwan's other power broker, James Soong, who finished second in the presidential race, ahead of Mr. Lien. Mr. Soong, who defected from the Nationalists after clashing with Mr. Lee, says he generally agrees with his old party on China policy.

"I certainly don't believe in the old saying, `Better red than dead,' " Mr. Soong said in an interview. "But we should not advocate hostility toward China across the Taiwan Strait."

Mr. Soong, who has formed his own People First Party, is not yet talking about merging his forces with the Nationalists. But the parties are jointly backing candidates in some provincial races.

For the Nationalists, the thornier challenge will be convincing people here that the confederation proposal will not put Taiwan on a slippery slope toward unification. Mr. Su noted that some confederations, like that of Egypt and Syria in the late 1950's, collapsed. Others, like the German confederation in the early 19th century, ended up as a unified empire.