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

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.

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.

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"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.

Such talk alarms Beijing policymakers, who have never hidden their mistrust of Chen since he rode to power six years ago associated with pro-independence policies. They fear any tinkering with the Taiwanese Constitution could be a Trojan horse for independence.

Those fears are simply "paranoia," scoffs Joseph Wu, head of the Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council, the body responsible for relations with Beijing. "China is always suspicious of Taiwan when it makes major steps toward democracy," he argues, and constitutional revision will make Beijing "very nervous."

"The government has pledged that we will not do any revision of the sovereignty issues" in the Constitution "because that would probably create a cross-Strait crisis," says Mr. Wu. Neither could the president push such an initiative through parliament, where a two-thirds majority is needed for constitutional revisions, Wu points out.

Instead, he says, Chen will propose changes to Taiwan's political structures to make the island more governable.

That initiative, however, is bound to spark a debate that will encompass calls for independence, Wu acknowledges. "When we engage in reform of these issues, people will question the merits ... of these (sensitive) articles" touching on such questions as Taiwan's territorial reach, for example, he forecasts.

Few Taiwanese appear to want independence at the moment. The most recent quarterly poll by the Mainland Affairs Council found that just 5.8 percent are in favor of independence as soon as possible, and another 14.7 percent are hoping for "the status quo now and independence later."

More than 80 percent favored maintaining the status quo for an undetermined period, whether they prefer eventual independence or eventual reunification with the mainland.

That preference for the status quo is shared, apparently, in Beijing. Where once the emphasis was on reunification, "the watchword now is antiseparation," says Mr. Guo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry think-tank analyst. "The mainland is focusing on stemming independence, not on reunification."

Nor does Washington want to see the boat rocked, a message that US officials are understood to have delivered forcefully to Chen. President Bush told Morris Chang, a Taiwanese envoy to the recent APEC economic summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, that "he hoped to see President Chen stick to (his) promises" that constitutional reform would steer clear of independence-related issues, Mr. Chang told reporters this week.

Chen has defied US wishes in the past, however, and even his own followers are still unclear exactly what their president's recent musings about founding a "second republic" or "freezing" parts of the existing Constitution might mean in practice.

While government officials insist there is nothing nefarious behind these proposals, others are skeptical. "When he is pushed into a corner, Chen plays with words," charges Mr. Chiang. "He insinuates things about independence, trying to appeal to the core supporters of the DPP. When he is in trouble, he always appeals to the base."

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