Washington Post



Taiwanese Leader Condemns Beijing, 'One China' Policy

Chen Dismisses Fears In U.S. of Rising Tension

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 7, 2003

President Chen

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Oct. 6 -- President Chen Shui-bian issued one of his strongest condemnations of China on Monday and ruled out any talks as long as China imposes conditions on Taiwan.

In an interview in the presidential palace in central Taipei, the 52-year-old lawyer, who in March 2000 became the first opposition candidate to be elected president, accused China of "hostile intent" toward Taiwan. Chen, who faces a tight race next year, declared that Taiwan would "walk our own road, our own Taiwan road."

Chen said he would not bow to U.S. pressure to modify recent moves -- including holding a referendum on rewriting the constitution and adding the name Taiwan to its official Republic of China passports -- which Bush administration officials worry could heighten tensions with Beijing.

"Taiwan is not a province of one country nor it is a state of another," the Taiwanese president said, referring to China and the United States. "Any kind of democratic reform is our own internal affair. I don't think any democratic country can oppose our democratic ideals."

Chen's comments were unusual because Taiwanese leaders are rarely so dismissive of U.S. concerns. Absent from his message were any olive branches or pronouncements of possible cooperation with China that he used in the past.

China has said that it will negotiate a series of outstanding issues with Taiwan, such as the possibility of direct flights between the two places, only if Taiwan accepts the "one China" principle, which means that Taiwan is part of China. In the past, Chen had held out hope that he would one day accept it. At one point last year, he even mentioned the possibility of "future political integration" between China and Taiwan.

On Monday, however, Chen called the "one China" principle "abnormal thinking that should not exist, it should be corrected." He also ruled out accepting a compromise deal reached in 1992 under which China and Taiwan had agreed to disagree about the issue.

"The so-called 1992 consensus is still a 'one China' principle," he said. "It's a way to make Taiwan a region. It belittles Taiwan, it marginalizes Taiwan."

"The people of Taiwan firmly believe that there is one country on each side of the straits," he said, "One China and one Taiwan."

Dressed in a dark blue suit and surrounded by aides, Chen appeared blunt and confident, referring to himself as a "responsible, accountable leader who has a sense of mission and a great vision for his country." Increasingly, analysts and government officials say that mission involves establishing Taiwan as an independent country and ruling out the possibility of uniting with China.

After his election, Chen issued a statement pledging that Taiwan would not declare independence, change its name or conduct a referendum on the question of independence. The referendums he is pushing now would be on rewriting the 1947 constitution, written for a mainland Chinese government and revised over the years, and on other issues such as nuclear power.

The Bush administration has watched with some alarm as the president has launched initiatives that many fear are designed to prompt a sharp reaction from Beijing, which has threatened to attack Taiwan if it declares independence. In the past weeks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and the U.S. envoy to Taiwan, Douglas Paal, have all publicly cautioned Chen. The Taiwanese president will transit through the United States later this month on his way to Panama.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that Chen would use the constitutional reform package as a way, among other things, to change the official name of the country from Republic of China to Taiwan, a move that would enrage Beijing. There is also worry that Chen's plan to push the use of referendums would prepare the way for an island-wide vote on Taiwan's relations with China, something Beijing also opposes. Chen said in the interview that he would do neither.

Chen has suffered a series of snubs at the hands of Beijing, including its successful effort to keep Taiwan out of the World Health Organization following the outbreak in Asia of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which many people here blame on Beijing. Chen cited the comment in May by China's U.N. representative in Geneva, Sha Zukang, after Taiwan's bid was turned down again. "The bid is rejected," Sha told reporters. "Who cares about your Taiwan?"

China's leaders "have never accepted me as the leader of Taiwan," Chen said. "In 2000 they didn't think I could be elected and they again misjudged the situation a year later during the election for our congress. The result was I became the president of Taiwan and the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] became the biggest party in our congress. . . . China is wrong. China's leaders are wrong."

Weakened by a sluggish economy and record unemployment, Chen currently lags about 10 percentage points behind his challengers for the presidential election set for March 20. His calculation is that a strong reaction by Beijing would help his chances for reelection, according to a broad variety of Taiwanese analysts and senior government officials.

"The only way he can win is if he stimulates China to react," said Tim Ting, a leading pollster in Taiwan. "There will be a line somewhere and Chen will cross it." Ting and others say that China's threats -- including then-Premier Zhu Rongji's nationally televised finger-wagging, seen as a warning to Taiwanese not to vote -- on the eve of the last presidential election helped Chen win.

Heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait would add significantly to international crises facing the Bush administration. Already, the administration has been cast in the role of unwilling mediator between China and Taiwan, a role it has rejected in the past.

"We have a bunch of political campaigners charting the course for Taiwan," said a senior Taiwanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was alarmed at Chen's shift. "The only way they think Chen will be reelected is if they succeed in polarizing Taiwan."

But Chen's opponent in the race, Lien Chan, and Lien's running mate, James Soong, who both ran in the last election, have so far failed to articulate a different vision for Taiwan.

Chen's Democratic Progressive Party "is increasingly being viewed as a bunch of amateurs set on destroying U.S.-China relations," said the senior government official who travels regularly to Washington. "But neither Lien Chan nor James Soong has convinced anyone that they will be any better."

Less than six months away from the vote, Lien has yet to come up with a platform or slogans for his campaign.

"We've never been good at dealing with the DPP," said John Chang, a senior official in Lien's Nationalist Party. "We lack PR. We are always behind them."

Chen said the SARS experience "really made Taiwan's people realize that China is full of hostile intent. You can't rely on China to ensure the health and welfare of Taiwan. We need to walk our own road."