TAIPEI, TAIWAN — President Chen Shui-bian is on the campaign trail, tossing himself into mobbing crowds, pushing the envelope, and liberally using the 1,000-volt word that nobody in Beijing wants to hear: referendum.
So Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, on his first official US visit, talked Taiwan with President Bush Tuesday, asking him to rein in Mr. Chen, whose planned March 20 referendum on removing Chinese missiles from the Fujian coastline is creating greater strain than anyone imagined. Before a Christmas hearth in the Oval Office, Mr. Wen heard what he was hoping for: a new opposition by the US to any "unilateral actions" by China or Taiwan to change the status quo.
Taiwan's president was raised in the country, not Taipei, and he first captured national attention as a sharp trial lawyer, not through old family contacts. As Chen formally announces his reelection bid Wednesday, he is thrusting himself and Taiwan into the court of public and international opinion - and East Asia is quivering. Not only is Chen politicking for office, he's making a case that China, not Taiwan, is the one creating problems by aiming some 500 missiles at the island of 23 million.
At a rally that opened with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its proclamations of the brotherhood of man, Chen stated that a national vote on Taiwan security is needed "for peace, democracy, and to oppose missiles and to oppose war and not allow our children to go to war."
In China, them's fighting words. Chen is dancing up and down a red line that China has long imposed on Taiwan. He has angered Chinese generals and caused senior White House officials to state this week that, "We are giving the Taiwanese the message very clearly and very authoritatively that we don't want to see steps toward independence." Chen responded on Tuesday that he plans to push ahead with a vote that many see as partaking in the spirit, if not the letter, of independence.
To some, Chen is a "wild man," as one local critic put it, shooting from the hip, pushing Taiwan to the brink, to the very precipice, in an effort to get reelected.
Perhaps so. But Chen backers say their candidate has resurrected a party that, a few months back, looked headed for defeat. In September, the Democratic Progressive Party was 10 to 20 points behind the Nationalists, with whom Beijing would rather work. In August, Chen was hammered in the press as "visionless" and "incompetent," an obstruction to business on the mainland.
Now, for better or worse, and in a way that has both energized Taiwan's debate over its future status, and brought knuckles in Washington and Beijing to a white glow - Chen seems awash in his vision. He has turned the tables, and the Nationalists are concerned. Polls show an even race.
Ballots aren't cast until March 20, and the official campaign starts 30 days earlier. But what seemed an issueless election is in full swing. The referendum, formerly a taboo subject, has turned the election into a laboratory of democracy or a dangerously provocative vote - depending on who frames the issue.
Mr. Wen, who rang the Wall Street stock exchange bell on Monday, framed the issue this way: "the Taiwan authorities [are attempting] to use democracy only as a cover to split Taiwan away from China and this is what we will never tolerate," according to the state-run Xinhua agency.
Mr. Bush's comments Tuesday indirectly opposed the referendum plan. US officials have openly leaked the idea that a referendum may "diminish" rather than enhance Taiwan's security. Sources say Washington prefers to be consulted by those whom it offers defense guarantees, however ambiguous those guarantees are.
In the Taiwan context, though, Chen's acts are the result of moves since October that caught the Nationalist party flatfooted. Chen supporters say the referendum call was a tactic in a fast-moving game. "In some cases, for Chen to consult with everyone would put us four or five days behind," says Chen aide Joseph Wu. "We can lose the election. [Chen] knows [this] is controversial. We are busy working with the Americans on this."
Typical of Chen's backers is this European scholar, "The problem is that Chinese communists don't want to talk with anyone. They don't want to talk with the Dalai Lama. They don't want to talk with Hong Kong. They don't want to talk with Taiwan. Chen has said we will stop the referendum if you meet about removing missiles. China won't talk."
The dynamics began two months ago, when Chen outlined three separate reform proposals: to rewrite the ramshackle 1950 constitution to fund large infrastructure projects, and to hold a referendum.
The ideas were initially laughed off by the opposition, a marriage of the Nationalists and James Soong's party, together known as pan-Blue.
Yet in each case, as voters responded to Chen's ideas, pan-Blue reversed itself, offering to revise the constitution. Then it offered up not a $500 billion infrastructure plan - but a $3 trillion plan. Finally, it agreed to allow a referendum. On Nov. 28, the Taiwan legislature voted for a referendum law, then passed a pan-Blue version that blocked Chen from calling for one.
But Chen found a loophole - a provision in the bill that allows the him to call for a referendum if Taiwan's security is endangered. Chen argues that Chinese missiles, which US Defense Department officials have repeatedly tried to get Beijing to remove, are a threat since Taiwan has no offensive hardware pointed at China.
The problem is that the US doesn't want to be put in a position of spelling out Taiwan's defense to a Chinese premier they would rather try to cooperate with.
"The summit is more tense than anyone expected even two months ago.," says Bates Gill, an Asia specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.