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Threats, Promises and Taiwan

International Commentary

February 1, 2000

Mainland China is shaping up to be the big issue in Taiwan's presidential election. On Sunday, Chen Shui-bian, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's candidate, pledged that the DPP "absolutely wouldn't unilaterally declare Taiwan independence" unless the island was attacked by China. He also promised not to write into law the "two states" formula of Taiwan-China relations created by President Lee Teng-hui, and he offered to negotiate with Chinese leaders as long as it was on the basis of equality.

Meanwhile Beijing is keeping up the fiery rhetoric. Former Foreign Minister Qian Qichen gave a speech last Friday in which he threatened war against Taiwan if it moved toward independence. Separatist leaders are "playing with fire," Mr. Qian said.

With more than a month left before the election, the outcome is far from clear. But regardless of whether Mr. Chen wins, he is the charismatic head of a vibrant party that is on track to take power from the ruling Kuomintang in the near future. China still seems to mistrust him despite past moves to moderate his position on independence. But a concerted attempt by Beijing to demonize him could backfire. Instead it must learn to deal with the populist leader.

Mr. Chen's background makes him hostile to the nationalist mainlanders who came to Taiwan with the fleeing KMT in 1949. He spent time in prison for defying the government, and his wife was crippled in a botched assassination attempt. He is the standard bearer for those who still harbor resentment because of the once-common official discrimination against native Taiwanese.

Judging from Mr. Chen's record as the mayor of Taipei, as president he definitely would accelerate the process of establishing a national identity for Taiwan, an identity which minimizes the points of commonality with China. That raises the key question for Chinese leaders who want reunification: Is time on their side? The changes in Taiwanese society would seem to suggest that it is not. With each passing year, young Taiwanese people seem to be more wrapped up in their island's culture, while the older generation which pines for hometowns on the mainland passes from the scene.

The danger is that this will cause Beijing to give up on peaceful reunification and turn to the military option. In this arena, time is definitely on China's side; the balance of forces across the Taiwan Strait is shifting. Richard Fisher writes nearby that the mainland has embarked on an expensive modernization of its armed forces, and many of the new systems could be used with devastating effect against Taiwan. The U.S. has yet to significantly step up arms sales to the island to counter this trend, which increases the danger of miscalculation by the mainland.

But Beijing should also note that Mr. Chen does not hate China blindly, despite his prejudice against mainlanders in Taiwan. He supports greater investment by Taiwanese companies in China, and would probably seek to bring about direct transportation links with the mainland more quickly than a KMT leader. His compromises on the independence issue suggest that he is not eager to stir the pot as President Lee has done.

There is a tendency among observers to emphasize the considerable stumbling blocks which would prevent negotiations between a Chen Shui-bian administration and Beijing. The DPP has signed on to the current government line that Taiwan is already a sovereign state, and would probably not go to the summit table without such recognition. Beijing would see granting this precondition as recognition of "two Chinas." It would seem that the two sides could never even begin to find common ground.

Ultimately, however, most Taiwanese want to preserve their separate way of life, and that will have to be the starting point for any new government. To the outside observer one obvious solution to the impasse is to subsume the two states under a sovereign entity with a new name, and give equal status to both. Commentators on both sides can give a myriad reasons why this would be "impossible," but in politics many things that are impossible become possible in time.

And it occurs to us that it is often the party that is usually seen as most hardline and conservative on an issue that is the one able to lead the way to compromise and resolution. That's why Beijing would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of engaging Mr. Chen.