During the past weeks, a debate has raged in Taiwan whether President Chen Shui-bian should assume the chairmanship of the National Unification Council. The pro-unification elements in Taiwan society, in particular the People's First Party and the splinter New Party, have put heavy pressure on President Chen to take this step in order to "show his sincerity to work for unification."
However, President Chen has not wanted to take this step, in particular since the NUC is an advisory body to the government, and asked why he should chair a body that advises him on policy issues. He has also increasingly stated that unification is not the only option for Taiwan, and that a full, free and open public debate should take place on the future of the island.
In order to facilitate this debate, the president has instituted a Task Force on cross-Strait Relations, headed by Academia Sinica President and Nobel prize winner Professor Lee Yuan-tseh. The 25-member task force held its first meeting on Saturday, 2 September 2000. President Chen invited members from all major parties in Taiwan to join the task force, but the pro-unification Peoples First Party and the Kuomintang have until now not wanted to join the activities of the task force, since they feel it undermines the unification agenda of the NUC.
The NUC was set up in 1990 by then-President Lee Teng-hui over the objections of the DPP, which opposed the underlying unification goal of the Council. The DPP's argument at that time -- and at the present -- is that all possible options for Taiwan's future -- including independence -- should be discussed, and that unification is not a foregone conclusion.
Below follows an article from the Taipei Times of 1 September 2000 regarding the issue. Reprinted with permission.
By Li Thian-hok. Mr. Li is a board member at large of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs and is chairman of the diplomacy committee of World United Formosans for Independence (USA).
Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tseh says it would be meaningless for President Chen Shui-bian to chair the National Unification Council (NUC) because the NUC is designed to advise the government.
Senior advisor to the President Peng Meng-min has also counseled against such an act. The opposition KMT and the People First Party on the other hand, want Chen to assume the chairmanship of the NUC. This is a grave decision which should not be made without weighing the consequences.
If Chen were to head the NUC, what impact would it have on his political career? Chen's electoral support comes mainly from those with a stronger sense of Taiwanese identity. Another step in the direction of unification with China will certainly disappoint and erode this important base of support. The DPP, already fragmented, will split further apart between those who seek accommodation with China even at the cost of endangering Taiwan's survival as a democracy and those who still believe that Taiwan's freedom is not negotiable. Against these disadvantages, Chen cannot realistically hope to gain new support from the die-hard advocates of unification with China, as past voter behavior clearly shows.
Furthermore, caving in to pressure from the opposition parties and China may reinforce the impression among many voters and observers abroad that Chen lacks vision, that he lacks a sense of national purpose, that he is a follower of opinion polls and not a leader.
Even more important is the effect of Chen's decision on Taiwan's security. The Guidelines for National Unification were adopted by the Executive Yuan Council in March 1991, when Taiwan's democratization was just beginning.
Having elected former president Lee Teng-hui in a direct popular election in 1996 and having achieved a peaceful transfer of power to the DPP this year, Taiwan has evolved into a full-fledged democracy. The 23 million people of Taiwan now have a right to determine their own future without any outside military or political pressure. Taiwan's future must be decided through an open and fair referendum, conducted after debate among a well-informed electorate. No Taiwan government has a right to prejudge the people's choice.
To arbitrarily impose unification with China as Taiwan's national goal is to negate the principle of self-determination and to abrogate the Taiwanese people's most basic human right. Such an act will raise the question: is Taiwan a true democracy?
Chen made five substantive concessions to China in his inauguration speech as a show of sincerity and goodwill, but has failed to elicit conciliatory gestures from the other side. Since then, the new DPP Chairman Frank Hsieh has labeled Kaohsiung and China's Xiamen as "one county, two cities." While the attempt has since been aborted, DPP lawmaker Chen Chau-nan proposed the abolition of the DPP's Taiwan independence platform.
All of the above events have contributed to the current China fever, with political parties, trade groups and religious pilgrims all scrambling to visit China and pay homage to China's leaders. Does Chen really wish to add to this snowballing momentum toward unification with the repressive Chinese government?
Among Americans who can influence US policy towards Taiwan, including members of Congress, Sinologists, former government officials and media pundits, there is much appreciation of Taiwan's democratization and support for the status quo, especially Taiwan's continued existence as a free-market democracy free from China's political control.
Even among staunch supporters of Taiwan, however, doubts regarding the Chen administration's resolve to stand up to China's threats and to defend the island's freedom is beginning to creep in. If Chen takes the chair of the NUC, America's support for Taiwan will undoubtedly be further dissipated.
In his May 20 address, Chen pledged not to abolish the NUC or the Guidelines for National Unification during his term in office. However, he is free to amend the Guidelines. Opinion surveys show only 15 percent of Taiwan's population favors unification with China. The remaining 85 percent wants either independence or the status quo. Chen's mandate, therefore, is to maintain Taiwan's de facto independent status indefinitely. Thus, the guidelines could be modified in two ways: First, to make clear unification is not the sole option. And second, to affirm that the future of Taiwan can only be determined by the people of Taiwan, through their freely expressed consent.
Another point worth making is that in its eagerness to placate Beijing, the Chen administration has violated the spirit and letter of the Guidelines for National Unification. The guidelines stipulate three stages for the process of unification. Direct postal, transport and commercial links are to be allowed in the second stage, only after China has implemented democracy and the rule of law and has ended its hostility towards Taiwan in the first stage. Even before his election to the presidency, Chen was already advocating the three direct links. Yet everyone knows China is far from being peaceful or democratic.
Until a new administration takes power in Washington, Chen will be well advised to stop making new concessions to Beijing and ponder scrupulously where he wants to lead the people of Taiwan.
In mid-July 2000, Israel announced that it was suspending the controversial sale of a Phalcon AWACS radar system mounted on a Russian-built Ilyushin aircraft, which would have enabled China to threaten and attack Taiwanese and American aircraft over the Taiwan Strait (see "The Israeli Phalcon AWACS sale", in Taiwan Communiqué no. 92, pp. 17-8).
Israeli officials made the announcement at Camp David in Maryland, where Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat were meeting at the invitation of president Clinton to hammer out a MidEast peace accord.
The potential sale by Israel to China had alarmed both Taiwan and the United States, since the sale was reportedly the first of a series of four or even eight, which would in due time enable China to gain air superiority over the Taiwan Strait.
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