Taiwan's president is reinaugurated

Chen vows not to raise independence issues that could move China to war

May 21, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIJING - President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan took office yesterday for a second four-year term, promising to deliver a new version of Taiwan's constitution, but pledging unequivocally not to raise delicate issues of independence that might spark a war with China.

In a carefully crafted speech designed to placate U.S. frustration and lessen tensions with Beijing, Chen said he's open to fresh talks with the mainland.

"Unite Taiwan, stabilize cross-strait relations, seek social harmony and reinvigorate the economy - these are the earnest hopes of the people and the foremost mission of my new administration," Chen said in his inaugural speech in the capital, Taipei.

Under a steady drizzle before the presidential palace, Chen told throngs gathered for his swearing-in ceremony that he's determined to reform the national charter, but not to push for independence from China.

"There are many problems with our current constitution that need to be tackled," he said, pledging to complete a new version by the end of his presidency in 2008.

Even so, Chen failed to satisfy Beijing, which earlier in the week threatened Taiwan's destruction unless it embraced the policy that the island is part of a single, greater China. Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, on a stopover in London, described reunification as "a historical inevitability that cannot be blocked by any force."

In an apparent concession to China, Chen said his administration is willing to negotiate with the mainland on various issues.

"If both sides are willing ... then [the two sides] can seek to establish relations in any form whatsoever," Chen said. "We would not exclude any possibility as long as there is the consent of the 23 million people of Taiwan."

Chen only indirectly mentioned the "one China, two systems" policy that Beijing has offered as a way for Taipei to retain some autonomy. Most Taiwanese reject such a near-term arrangement, viewing Taiwan, the world's 15th-largest trading economy, as a sovereign, democratic and well-off nation. Taiwan has been ruled separately since the defeated Nationalists fled to the island after losing a civil war to the Communists in 1949.

"He didn't say he refuses the `one China' principle. He's much more clever than that. He said, `We can't understand why China can't relinquish its insistence on the `one China' principle,'" said Gilles Guiheux, director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, a think tank in Hong Kong.

Chen pledged to buy more weapons, saying it is imperative that Taiwan upgrade its armed forces to confront the "ever-increasing military threat from across the strait."

Over the past decade, Taiwan has moved from authoritarian rule to a messy but thriving democracy. While Washington has praised the transition, its relations with Taipei have grown testy, in part because some Bush administration officials view Taiwan's declining defense budgets as irresponsible in the face of threats from Beijing and a balance of military power tilting away from Taiwan.

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