In China-Taiwan standoff, a key retreat


In a move that could sharply reduce the risk of war with the Chinese mainland, Taiwan's main opposition party expects to radically change its position on the island's independence.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has evolved over the past decade from a fledgling band of dissidents into Taiwan's second most powerful political force, is distancing itself from early calls for a proclamation of nationhood, senior party leaders and advisers told the Monitor.

The change is likely to ease fears among Taiwan's 21 million citizens and in Washington that the Democratic Progressives could spark a conflict with China if the party wins the presidency in elections due in 2000. China has vowed to attack Taiwan if it issues a declaration of independence.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a rebel province that, despite the island's de facto autonomy for the past half century, must eventually rejoin the Chinese political fold - by force if necessary.

During a visit to Taiwan yesterday, prominent Chinese dissident Wei Jing-sheng urged Taiwan not to hold unification talks with China until Beijing adopts democracy.

Although Taiwan's opposition grabbed headlines in the 1980s with bold calls for independence, it has since blurred its stance on the issue, and is now preparing to formalize that change by rewriting the party's platform.

A leading DPP adviser says, "All references to independence in the Democratic Progressive Party's charter could be erased" during an ongoing revision of the document. The adviser, who asked not to be identified, adds that "the amendments could be voted on by the party's leadership as early as in January."

The DPP fared worse than expected in Dec. 5 legislative and mayoral elections, when the ruling Nationalist Party registered wide gains. The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, fled to Taiwan after their defeat by the Communists during the 1949 Chinese civil war and set up a rival government here.

The two sides of the Taiwan Strait are still technically at war. Beijing launched a series of live missiles off Taiwan's coast during the island's first free presidential vote in 1996 to warn it against moving toward independence.

At that time, the US deployed two naval battle groups to protect Taiwan until Beijing halted its "missile tests."

The US, which has diplomatic ties with Beijing and defense links with Taiwan, could be pulled into the conflict if the Chinese civil war restarts. Washington is therefore likely to welcome the DPP's abandonment of calls for independence, says David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington.

Ten years ago, Taiwan's Nationalists and Democrats seemed to be at opposite poles on the independence question, with the Kuomintang stating they would enter talks on reunification when the mainland embraced democracy and the opposition pushing for a sovereign state of Taiwan.

Yet Taiwan's two main parties have both "moved to the center on the independence issue," says Luo Wen-jia, a top adviser to DPP leader and outgoing Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian.

Mr. Chen recently missed reelection by a slim margin, and several advisers concede he would probably have won but for the DPP's onetime independence stance.

Many political analysts say Chen has a good shot at winning the presidency in 2000 if he breaks with his past views on the issue. And polls indicate he has gained popular support.

Chen now believes "it's time for the party to completely review the independence issue," says Chen's spokesman, Gary Tseng. The first step toward that goal is likely to be amending the DPP charter's provision for an island-wide plebiscite on Taiwan's future, Chen said during an interview at Taipei's City Hall.

The charter states Taiwan's people should have the right to determine the island's status through a referendum, but "China has threatened to attack if Taiwan holds a referendum on the independence issue," says Professor Shambaugh.

CHEN says he now backs tightly restricting the possibility of any plebiscite. "Although we still insist our people have the ultimate right to determine their future through a referendum, that right will only be exercised if mainland China uses force to threaten Taiwan."

The Democratic Progressives also hope "to open channels of dialogue with China in order to preserve peace across the Taiwan Strait," says Mr. Luo. "The DPP was founded as an opposition group and is now evolving into a force that could soon become Taiwan's ruling party," says Luo. "So it is natural its policies, platform, and constitution change." One day in the future, Luo adds, "if the mainland catches up to Taiwan in terms of economic development and degree of democracy, then Taiwan's people can themselves make the decision on reunification."

The evolution in the DPP's thinking is partly in response to Taiwan's electorate, most of whom now back maintaining the island's de facto autonomy without issuing a provocative independence declaration. Yet the change may also be due to quiet prodding by the US.

Washington has sent several former officials to Taipei this year to warn Taiwan against declaring independence, says a Western official in Beijing. And during a June summit in Beijing, President Clinton explicitly stated the US did not support Taiwan's formal breakaway from China.

"The implication of that statement is the US will not come to Taiwan's aid if it declares independence," says Chas Freeman, a former assistant secretary of defense. But if the Chinese mainland attacked and "the US saw no provocation from Taiwan, the chances of intervention would go up substantially," adds Mr. Freeman.

Many DPP leaders now "recognize how explosive the independence issue can be," says Bruce Dickson, an expert on Taiwan at George Washington University. "And they don't want to endanger Taiwan's security."

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