Taiwan's Chen keeps China at bay

The new president reaches out to China, but isn't backing down on de facto autonomy.

Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian, spent his first day on the job by traveling to the front lines of a defense frontier with the Chinese mainland.

Quemoy, a rocky outpost much closer to mainland China than the island of Taiwan, is dotted with antiship traps, artillery bases, and Taiwanese troops.

"The trip is designed to show Chen Shui-bian is in command of [Taiwan's] military and that he's prepared to defend our liberty, democracy, and human rights," says a top adviser to Chen who requested anonymity. "But he also wants to outline a new era of friendship with the mainland's people, and offer an olive branch to Beijing."

On Saturday, Chen became the first opposition leader of Chinese anywhere to be handed the reins of power in peace. But after more than a decade of transition to democracy on the island, what most threatens that peace is Taiwan's relationship to China.

In his inaugural speech, Chen bent over backward to defuse tensions when he vowed Taiwan would only seek statehood if China attacked. Once a fervent supporter of Taiwan's independence from China, "Chen himself has changed greatly," adds the adviser.

Early this year, China's Communist Party and defense leaders launched a barrage of military threats aimed at cutting Taiwanese support for Chen's candidacy in the island's second-ever direct presidential election.

Following his narrow victory, the warnings of war have been targeted at preventing Chen's Democratic Progressive Party from moving toward its one-time goal of forming an independent republic.

Taiwan has been separated from the mainland since the 1949 civil war by a narrow strait and a fragile truce. China has periodically warned that any moves to formalize the island's de facto autonomy with a declaration of independence would be considered an act of war.

The Beijing-based People's Liberation Army Daily recently warned that "The consequences [of secession] will be disastrous by pushing Taiwan into the abyss of war and putting the welfare of the 23 million Taiwan people at risk."

For decades Taiwan's shield against an invasion has included arms and an ambiguously worded pledge by the United States to defend the island.

Although Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, its ongoing security ties with Taiwan mean that the US remains a key factor in strategic calculations by defense planners and politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan has powerful backers in the US Congress, which is slated to vote later this week on whether to extend permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, with China.

"China doesn't dare to ratchet up the conflict with Taiwan at this point because it knows that would mark the death of PNTR," says a Western diplomat in Beijing.

Passage of PNTR is still not assured. But it is a high priority for the Clinton administration, which argues that the US will benefit from expanded access to markets in China and that human rights monitoring in China will continue without the annual trade review.

Andrew Yang, who heads the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, says China's and then Taiwan's entry into the WTO could ultimately help protect Taiwan.

"Taiwan is willing to open direct trade ties with the mainland in exchange for a pledge that Beijing will renounce the use of force in the conflict," says Mr. Yang, whose think tank is affiliated with Taiwan's defense ministry. Yesterday, President Chen said he would seriously consider the "outdated" ban on direct communication and transport links to China.

Yang adds that "If both sides join the WTO and Beijing launches an economic blockade or military action against Taiwan, China's membership in WTO could be suspended." Without taking any position on Taiwan's status, "the international community could also slap economic sanctions on China for aggression against a WTO member," he adds.

China's rulers had a potential PNTR defeat in mind when they toned down their angry rhetoric in the first official reaction to Chen's inauguration, says the Western official.

In a statement jointly issued by the Communist Party and the premier's office, Beijing condemned Chen for failing to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. But Beijing tempered the message by offering to open a cross-strait dialogue - if Taiwan's leaders gave even unwritten assurances that the island is part of "One China."

President Chen is caught between a rock and a hard place, "between his own party's previous stance on independence and China's threats of reunification through force," says Chen's adviser. "In the latest poll, 91 percent of the people [in Taiwan] were opposed to reunification with China," he says. "But the majority also oppose independence if it triggers a war across the strait."

"All along, Chen Shui-bian has been navigating between two extremes by trying to halt provocative statements by people in his own party on independence and building goodwill across the strait," he adds.

To bridge Taiwan's internal divides, Chen has formed a coalition government, naming a Nationalist Party general as his premier and seeking input from every social sector, class,and party.

And to ease Beijing's fears that Taiwan is on an inalterable march toward separation, "Chen Shui-bian is trying to stress the common blood, culture, and language of Chinese people on both sides of the Strait," the adviser says.

"Chen was once branded a radical, and there are still people in Taiwan and on the mainland who fear that he could spark a fight," he says. "But Chen knows that the lives of all Taiwan's people are in his hands, and he's not going to do anything to put them in danger."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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