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Watchful eye on Taiwan's embattled Chen

The pro-independence president faces a recall bid Friday over charges of corruption and lying.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2006


Taiwan's beleaguered President Chen Shui-Bian seems set to survive an opposition parliamentary bid to unseat him Friday – his third such challenge this year.

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But officials in Washington and Beijing are nervous. As the president fights to clear his wife and himself of swirling corruption charges, they say, he may seek to make Taiwan a flash point that would drag the US and China into a diplomatic conflict both wish to avoid.

Government officials here insist President Chen will keep his public promises not to press for Taiwan's independence in defiance of Beijing's claims to the island. But some Chinese analysts on the mainland have their doubts. And Beijing's extreme sensitivity to Taiwan's status means that even steps well short of a formal declaration could stir up trouble in relations across the Strait of Taiwan that divides the island from the mainland.

"Chen is a political gambler," worries Guo Zhanyuang, a Taiwan watcher at the China Institute for International Studies, a Beijing think tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. "It's when he is in the biggest trouble that he takes the biggest risks."

Potentially, the stakes are very high. China has threatened in the past to use "nonpeaceful means" if self-governing Taiwan takes formal steps toward independence, and the US might find itself obliged to come to the democratic island's defense.

Chen has been weakened by scandals that have seen his son-in-law and wife indicted for corruption and forced him to admit to lying to investigators: His approval ratings have dropped to 18 percent in recent polls. With just 16 months left of his term of office and parliament under opposition control, he is a lame duck, say many observers.

"We will see a continued marginalization of Chen as an effective political force," says Bates Gill, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "He will be increasingly unable to pursue his agenda."

"He has lost his credibility," adds Antonio Chiang, who served Chen in his first presidential term as deputy head of Taiwan's National Security Council, but who is now a fierce critic. "He has lost the trust of the Americans, the opposition, the people, and even his own party."

Nevertheless, say aides, the president remains determined to try to revise Taiwan's constitution – written in 1947 before Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to Taiwan and ceded the mainland to the Communists – to bring it up to date.

Taiwanese officials say that they do not need to declare independence because they have achieved it in practice over the past 50 years. But, "we need a reengineered Constitution to fit the modern situation," explains Winston Dang, head of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) international affairs department. "It will be our top priority" after mayoral elections next month, he says.