Time Asia logo

Strait Talk

November 15, 2004

TIME meets with Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, who talks of cross-strait relations

By Michael Elliott

President Chen in Nanyang gardens
SMELL THE ROSES: Chen relaxes at Nanyuan farm near his birthplace in Tainan county, southern Taiwan

Of all the challenges in Asia with which President George W. Bush will have to deal, none is so vexing -- or so potentially catastrophic should it be handled badly-- as the relationship between China and Taiwan. Beijing sees Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, who was re-elected to a second four-year term in March, as a dangerous "splittist" who is determined to lead Taiwan to independence, something that China has made clear it will not tolerate. The U.S. is pledged to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons but has warned Chen against upsetting the status quo. Chen recently spoke with Time's Michael Elliott. Here are excerpts:

TIME: What sort of conversation would you like to have with Chinese President Hu Jintao? Chen: First of all, I would like to congratulate him on taking over full leadership in China. Of course, we hope that the new leadership would make new contributions to democracy in China, to peace across the Taiwan Strait and to regional stability. We understand that the Chinese Communist Party and its basic policy toward Taiwan will not undergo any changes in the short term, and we dare not have unrealistic expectations. We do hope, however, that Hu Jintao will come up with new thinking and new actions.

TIME: What are your concrete proposals for reducing tensions across the Strait? Chen: From my inaugural speech of May 2000 through my National Day address [on Oct. 10], I think we have extended more than 30 olive branches. We will take whatever actions are needed to improve cross-strait relations and to ensure permanent peace across the strait. Even though the other side of the strait has never responded with goodwill over four-plus years, we are not giving up.

TIME: Beijing's reaction to your olive branches has not been very encouraging. Chen: The U.S. government has told me in private that they welcome my National Day speech and they think of it as very constructive and creative. At the same time, the U.S. government told me how China would react to my olive branches. They asked me to be patient. There is still an opportunity there.

TIME: Is Taiwan an independent, sovereign country? Chen: If Taiwan were not an independent country, it would not hold direct presidential elections. Taiwan is an independent sovereign country and a country in which freedom, democracy, human rights and peace are upheld and respected.

TIME: Is eventual reunification with the mainland feasible? Chen: If we look at the example from the European Union, they started their integration process from economics, trade and culture. We would not exclude the possibility of establishing any kind of political relationship so long as it has the consent of our 23 million people.

TIME: You've heard comments from many world leaders that you should not disturb the status quo. Chen: Let me clarify the status quo. Taiwan is an independent, sovereign state and, according to its constitution, its moniker is the Republic of China. This is the status quo, and we must defend this status quo and keep it from being unilaterally changed.

TIME: Does "one country, two systems" as applied in Hong Kong provide any model for future relations between Beijing and Taiwan? Chen: I think the clear and fundamental reason we cannot possibly accept the so-called "one China" principle is that, according to the Beijing authorities, that means "one country, two systems." Hong Kong, under the formula, has become a special administrative region and a local government of China. Nobody wants to have Taiwan become a second Hong Kong or a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China [PRC].

TIME: Could you conceive of a definition of the "one China" principle with which you could agree? Chen: I must point out that, regrettably, the content and interpretation of the "one China" principle is "peaceful unification" and "one country, two systems." China has insisted on this and has never changed its stance. In the "one country, two systems" formula, the "one country" means the PRC. And "two systems" means that the PRC will play the part of central government while Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan would be local governments.

TIME: What about Taiwan's defense? Chen: In order to truly defend our homeland, apart from having democracy as our best theater missile defense, we also need to build up sufficient self-defense capabilities. The U.S. has been very clear: In order to maintain the balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait and ensure the security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. decided to sell arms, including submarines, to help us enhance our ability to defend Taiwan. Most people forget that China has 86 submarines, many of which are sophisticated modern models. Regarding our purchasing of Patriot PAC-III antimissile systems, China accuses Taiwan of being provocative and of attempting to disturb peace across the Taiwan Strait. Most people in the world have forgotten, however, that it is China that has deployed 610 ballistic missiles along its southeastern coast targeting Taiwan and that these missiles increase at a rate of about 50 to 70 per year. What Taiwan has been striving to achieve is to defend the security, peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

TIME: Why is constitutional reform so necessary? Chen: I think everyone understands that for the long-term security and stability of this nation it is imperative that we engage in this constitutional-reform project. But I must make it very clear that this constitutional project does not involve national sovereignty, national territory or the question of independence vs. unification. This is a domestic issue for Taiwan. It is an issue of consolidating and deepening Taiwan's democracy.

TIME: Some see rewriting the constitution as being tantamount to a declaration OF independence. Chen: I think those who interpret [constitutional reform] that way are making a grave mistake. The Beijing authorities distort our process of democratization into an intention to move toward Taiwan independence. The constitutional-reform project follows the line of our democratic reform. For more than four years, I have wanted to improve and normalize cross-strait relations, and to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait. I am a maker of history. I have two historic missions. First, I want to hand over to the 23 million Taiwan people a timely, befitting and suitable new constitution before my tenure ends in 2008. Second, I want to normalize cross-strait relations during my tenure and reopen cross-strait negotiations. I hope that the two sides can engage in a dialogue for peace.

TIME: What would make Beijing authorities realize that they have to enter talks? Chen: We will have to wait another four years if there is no dialogue.

TIME: Do you have any views on the U.S. election? Chen: No matter who is elected, I believe that U.S. policy toward Taiwan will remain the same, including continued U.S. sales of defensive weapons to Taiwan in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.

TIME: Has President Bush been good for Taiwan? Chen: We are very grateful that in April 2001, shortly after taking office, President Bush approved a package of arms sales to Taiwana deal Taiwan had been striving for over many years but had not attained. On Jan. 1, 2002, Taiwan became the 144th member of the World Trade Organization and, in May of this year, received the U.S. government's vote of support at the World Health Organization. All these, I believe, are attributable to decisions made by President Bush during his presidency. We necessarily feel grateful.