Washington Post



Taiwan's Chen Backs Vote on Independence

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 4, 2002

BEIJING, Aug. 3 -- Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, said today that he supported legislation for a referendum on whether the island should declare independence from China.

Chen also issued the clearest definition to date of his views of Taiwan's relations with China, fundamentally rejecting China's position that Taiwan and China belong to the same country. "Taiwan, China, on each side [of the Taiwan Strait] are different countries," Chen said.

The comments constituted the strongest anti-China statements made by Chen since he took office in May 2000 as the first member of Taiwan's opposition to become president of the island of 22 million people. In his inauguration speech, Chen pledged that he would not support a popular referendum on Taiwan's international status -- a position he overturned today.

China has vowed to attack Taiwan if the island declares independence. While China's threats toward Taiwan have fluctuated, Beijing said in late 1999 that it could also justify an attack if Taiwan went forward with a referendum on independence.

Chen's remarks, given at a gathering in Tokyo of independence supporters via video linkup, marked the third time in two weeks that Chen has made a statement designed to appeal to independence activists and irritate China, which had no immediate response. Analysts and Taiwanese politicians say the remarks underscore a rapid shift on Chen's part away from accommodation with China and toward confrontation.

The analysts also said Chen's new position would probably end recent speculation that China and Taiwan were on the verge of a breakthrough over negotiations aimed at opening direct shipping, air and communications links.

The catalyst for this shift is believed to have been a diplomatic victory by China that it announced on July 21, the same day Chen was named the chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party. China said it was establishing relations with Nauru, a Pacific island nation of 12,000 people known as the world's smallest republic, which dropped Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

Nauru, like all countries that recognized Taiwan, had been courted fervently by China. China now has diplomatic ties with 165 countries, while Taiwan has ties with only 27, mostly poor countries in Africa and Latin America. The United States cut official ties with Taiwan in 1979 and recognized China.

Two other factors may be playing a role in Chen's thinking. Chen may be seeking to capitalize on reports of a leadership struggle in Beijing to gain some advantage in the run-up to China's 16th Party Congress this fall. And Chen also appears anxious to establish strong ties with the right wing of the United States' Republican Party, which generally supports the idea of an independent Taiwan.

In a speech last Monday, Chen told businessmen that Taiwan "should not harbor any illusions" about improving ties with China.

"Taiwan needs survival and development, but they just don't allow us to take a breath. Precisely speaking, they want to eliminate us and swallow us. Then we must think seriously if we have to go down our own road, our own Taiwan road, toward Taiwan's future," Chen said. Beijing reacted bitterly to Chen's expression "Taiwan road," because it implied an independent Taiwan.

Speaking in native Taiwanese today, Chen told independence activists that holding a "referendum is a basic human right that cannot be deprived or restricted."

"I want to sincerely urge and encourage everybody to seriously consider the importance and urgency of passing legislation on a referendum," Chen said, a direct contradiction with his inauguration pledge.

Taiwanese analysts noted, however, that there is little chance that Chen's wishes on the referendum law will become reality. His party does not have a majority in Taiwan's legislature, and there is opposition to such an inflammatory move even among his party faithful.

Chen's statement on Taiwan's status echoed the position of his predecessor, President Lee Teng-hui, who in late 1999 announced that China and Taiwan should establish "special state-to-state" relations -- a position that enraged Beijing.

China responded by buzzing the Taiwan Strait with warplanes and canceling negotiations with Taiwan that have not resumed.

Chen's comments provoked criticism from opposition politicians in Taiwan.

Nationalist Party Chairman Lien Chan, who came in third in the 2000 presidential election, accused Chen of leaning toward independence and warned that this would bring only "disaster and threats."

James Soong, head of the People First Party, who came in second in the 2000 race, warned Chen that he had spoken irresponsibly.

"When you were a lawmaker, you could say whatever you wanted and shift your position whenever you pleased, but as a president you can't be so reckless," Soong said.

Chen has been squeezed by his party's left wing, which fears that he will abandon the principles of the Democratic Progressive Party, whose party platform calls for the creation of an independent Taiwan.

But he is also under considerable pressure from business leaders to improve ties with China. Since 1987, when Taiwan relaxed an investment ban, Taiwanese companies have poured more than $70 billion into China.

In recent weeks, Taiwan has further relaxed rules restricting investment in the high-tech sector in China, and on Friday it eased restrictions on Taiwanese banks, allowing them to conduct direct remittances with Chinese banks.

These moves, along with some moderate statements from Chinese officials in Beijing, sparked speculation that talks were being readied on the "three links" -- direct flights, shipping and communication between the island and China, which are just 100 miles apart. Businessmen traveling between the two countries must now go through Hong Kong, Macao or Japan.

However, senior Chinese and Taiwanese officials have played down the speculation, saying that enormous problems remain between the two sides. A senior Chinese official said his government believes that Chen will not move on the three links until late 2003, when he will use the issue to boost his reelection campaign in 2004.