Asia / Pacific News
Chen Plans Debate On Taiwan Charter
Leader Keeping Independence High on Agenda
By Edward Cody and Anthony Faiola
TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 13 -- President Chen Shui-bian declared Monday that he will soon open debate on a new constitution for Taiwan, including the explosive issues of sovereignty, territory and formal independence for the self-ruled island.
But Chen, who has incurred the wrath of China and the irritation of the United States over his relentless pursuit of Taiwanese independence, added in an interview that, practically speaking, political opposition to such controversial changes makes it unlikely they will be approved anytime soon by the opposition-controlled legislature.
Chen's comments, in a 90-minute conversation at the presidential palace in Taipei, suggested he will continue to insist on making his dream of formal independence the main item on Taiwan's political agenda. But at the same time, he said, Beijing and Washington should not get upset, since the opposition Nationalist Party has the votes in the Legislative Yuan to prevent his ambitions from being translated into law for the time being. "So everybody can relax," he said, smiling.
"I have given my assurances that we will abide by due procedure for constitutional reform," he added later. "So you have correctly put it that the subject is open, but some subjects might not be so preferable. So I think we have to wait until the society has matured enough, and [only when] we have enough support from the people and we have the full consent of the legislature can we deal with these issues regarding sovereignty."
Despite the display of patience, Chen's vow of a debate on such constitutional issues as sovereignty and formal independence indicated that the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait will continue to be a source of tension and danger in the Asia-Pacific region, involving the United States and Japan as well as China.
China, which regards the island as a province that must return to Beijing's rule, has warned it would use force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwan from acquiring formal independence. In particular, it has declared that any revision of the constitution to foster independence would not be tolerated.
The United States, although it has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, has vowed to help the island defend itself, meaning a conflict here could end up drawing U.S. forces into a confrontation with China's 2.3 million-strong military. With Japan linked to the United States in a defense treaty and its southern islands lying in nearby waters, Tokyo could also be sucked into such a conflict.
Acutely aware of the issue's sensitivity, Taiwan's government has laid down strict rules for amending the constitution. Any change must be approved by a three-fourths majority in the Legislative Yuan and then endorsed in a referendum by a majority of those eligible to vote. The effect is to make such change extremely difficult without broad political consensus, which Chen sorely lacks in Taiwan's highly politicized atmosphere.
But Chen, who has two years remaining in his second and final four-year term, appears determined to ensure that Taiwanese politics continue to revolve around his independence goals, particularly as the 2008 presidential election comes onto the horizon. His stance has solidified the pro-independence base of his Democratic Progressive Party and forced the Nationalist Party to deal with a subject it would rather avoid.
The Nationalists, who favor better relations with mainland China, traditionally have viewed reunification under certain conditions as a desired goal. But more recently, Nationalist leaders have de-emphasized reunification, seeking support from the 80 percent of the Taiwanese public that opinion polls consistently indicate want to keep the status quo of self-rule.
At a rally Sunday in Taipei, tens of thousands of Nationalists shouted their opposition to Chen, saying he should avoid riling Taiwan's giant neighbor and focus more on improving the economy. The Nationalist leader and the party's probable presidential candidate in 2008, Ma Ying-jeou, drew cheers when he denounced the Chen government for what he called corruption and lack of concern for how most people live.
Zhang Jili, 73, a merchant who returned to Taiwan after years in Vietnam, said during the rally that China's takeover is inevitable "within 10 years." Chen's pursuit of independence is a pipe dream, he added.
Chen recently caused concern -- in Taiwan, China and the United States -- with a statement Feb. 27 that the island's National Unification Council had "ceased to function" and that a set of unification guidelines had "ceased to apply." The council was set up in 1990 by the then-ruling Nationalists as a display of willingness to eventually reunite with the mainland. But practically, it had been idle since Chen came to power in 2000.
Chen said he originally wanted to say the council had been "abolished," but was dissuaded by the United States on grounds that he had promised in 2000 not to eliminate it. That promise was one of several -- including a pledge not to substantially revamp the constitution -- made by Chen to pacify concerns in the United States and China that he could create trouble with his passionate quest for independence.
The word change was negotiated over several weeks between Taiwanese and U.S. officials, said Joseph Wu, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. In the end, Chen's statement also included an affirmation that he was not changing the status quo and would follow legal procedures in any constitutional revision.
As a result, the Bush administration reacted mildly. But China dismissed the shift in wording as eyewash and called Chen's decision "dangerous." Officials in Beijing warned that Washington was sending a signal that Chen could take further steps toward independence without problems from his U.S. supporters.
[Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao referred to Chen's council move during a news conference Tuesday at the end of the national parliament session, correspondent Philip P. Pan reported from Beijing. "His moves are extremely dangerous and deceptive. We need to stay alert to the fact they are now intensifying their secessionist activities," Wen said. "We are closely following developments, and we are fully prepared for all the eventualities. . . . We will by no means allow Taiwan to be separated from the motherland."]
Chen, in Monday's interview, defended his decision on the council as a defense of Taiwan's democracy, saying that only the island's people have the right to decide its fate. Neither independence nor reunion with China should be excluded, he added, until Taiwanese voters have had their say.
Chen expressed dismay that other nations would criticize Taiwan for taking steps to stay out from under Chinese domination. China, with its 1.3 billion people and rising economic power, is like a raging elephant, he said, while Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, is like a little rabbit trying to avoid being crushed.
"When an elephant walks into a china shop," he said, "if it goes crazy, it may make a mess of, or even destroy, the china, antiques or other valuable things located there.".