Taiwan's president must walk a fine line

Independence talk in inaugural speech would enrage China

May 20, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In his inauguration speech this morning, Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian, refused to knuckle under to war threats from Beijing and state that the democratic island is a part of "One China."

However, the 50-year-old son of a tenant farmer continued to make overtures to the mainland in hopes of improving relations across the Taiwan Strait -- one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.

In his much-anticipated, 4,500-word address, Chen spoke of a common history and culture between Chinese people on both sides of the strait and restated a pledge not to declare independence as long as Beijing does not attack."We believe the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future `One China,' " said Chen, who went into no further detail on the sensitive issue.

Chen, who was joined by his vice-president, Annette Lu, during the swearing-in ceremony, said, "We do not need to wait further, because now is a new opportunity for the two sides to create an era of reconciliation together."

There was no immediate reaction to Chen's speech from the regime in Beijing, which usually takes at least several hours to formulate official responses to political and news events.

Speaking on CNN, Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said Chen had fulfilled his promise to the United States to strike a conciliatory tone."He has been working very hard and been very careful to avoid provoking Beijing," said Cheng, moments after the speech, which ran more than 30 minutes.

Chen's inauguration completes the first democratic transfer of power among the Chinese people, one of the world's oldest societies. It also serves as a striking contrast to the political deep freeze on the mainland, where the Communist Party continues to jail those who try to oppose it."We have proven to the world that freedom and democracy are indisputable universal human values," said Chen, in what seemed a reference to Taiwan's democratic transition as well as the Communist Party's iron-fisted control over the mainland.

In emphasizing the shared background of China and Taiwan while speaking only vaguely about the concept of "One China," Chen continued a long-running linguistic tightrope act in one of the world's more risky games of semantics. How he handles the task in the months ahead could greatly determine the future of cross-strait relations, which are at their lowest point in years.

For decades, the murky concept of "One China" has kept the peace between China and Taiwan while helping to prevent a war between the mainland and Taiwan's long-time supporter, the United States.

Beijing has viewed Taiwan as a breakaway province since Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled there at the end of the Chinese civil war five decades ago. Many Chinese feel passionately that Taiwan is a part of their territory and say they are willing to go to war if Taipei ever tries to formally declare independence.

Taiwan, however, is a vibrant democracy with the world's 19th-largest economy. It shows little interest in merging with China, an unwieldy behemoth run by an authoritarian gerontocracy. Taiwan's leaders have said they would entertain talk of reunification only after China becomes democratic.

Until last year, both sides had agreed to a principle of "One China" under different and sometimes varying definitions.

Beijing has insisted that there is only one China in the world, that Taiwan is a part of China and that China's sovereignty and territorial integrity is not to be separated.

Taiwan has taken the route of "creative ambiguity," contending that there is "One China," but "two political entities."

The legal fiction of "One China," began to collapse last year when outgoing Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui said that the relationship across the strait should be handled on a "special state-to-state basis."

Beijing saw the comments as a further sign of Taiwan's growing national identity and drift away from the mainland's embrace. It threatened war. Wednesday, China's state-run press renewed that threat if Chen did not toe Beijing's rhetorical line today."If Taiwan's new leader refuses in his inaugural speech to recognize the `One China' principle and even makes a speech that inclines toward Taiwan independence, then relations between the two sides will certainly take a turn," the state-run China Business Times said. "War in the Taiwan Strait will be difficult to avoid."

Observers, however, consider such threats hollow at the moment and say military action would be politically disastrous for Beijing.

In March, Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) knocked off Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, which had been in power since Chiang arrived in 1949.

The DPP formally supports Taiwanese independence and many had predicted that Chen's election would worsen cross-strait relations.

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