Olympic torch may stall at Taiwan strait

China's plan to run the Olympic torch through Taiwan, announced in April, met with a quick refusal.

An awkward hiccup has interrupted Beijing's otherwise smooth preparations for next year's Olympic Games: Taiwan has upset its plans for the Olympic torch's worldwide "journey of harmony" by refusing to host the flame.

The spat over the torch's route reflects the self-governing island's extreme sensitivity about its independence in the face of mainland China's insistence that the breakaway state is merely a renegade province. It is the latest in a series of recent rows that have soured the atmosphere in one of Asia's riskiest flash points.

Though backroom talks are underway to try to smooth over the dispute in a face-saving manner, officials here say they do not expect a solution.

"I am quite pessimistic," says Chen Ming-tong, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "If Beijing makes no new proposals there is no way the torch can come to Taiwan."

That tough stance, says Taiwanese Information Minister Shieh Jhy-wey, is a deliberate bid to boost his country's self-image. "It is very important for Taiwan to be a bit of a troublemaker, in a positive sense," he argues. "It is saving us to base ourselves on our dignity, to say 'no' to the Chinese government."

Beijing Olympic officials were shocked, two hours after they announced the torch's 85,000 mile route last April, when Taiwan said it refused to be a part of it.

Chinese and International Olympic Committee officials had thought Taiwan was agreeable to a diplomatic fudge, under which the torch would travel from Vietnam to Taiwan to Hong Kong, which has been part of China for ten years.

That way, Taiwan could claim that it constituted the last stop on the international leg of the torch's 19-week odyssey, defending its claim to be an independent, sovereign nation, and Beijing could regard it as the first stop in the domestic relay, satisfying its position that Taiwan is part of the People's Republic of China.

At the last minute, however, Taiwan – currently led by the pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian – backed away from this compromise.

"We considered the ambiguity strategy, but felt it was no good," explains Dr. Chen, the president's top adviser on relations with the mainland. "We decided to take a clear strategy."

That decision was consistent with President Chen's efforts over the past seven years to distance Taiwan from mainland China in symbolic ways, most recently by changing the name of the island's postal service from "China Post" to "Taiwan Post." Now Chen is promoting a referendum on whether the government should seek United Nations membership as Taiwan, having lost its seat to the People's Republic in 1971.

It also matches a pattern whereby Chen has sought to ratchet up tensions with the mainland, rallying his political supporters, whenever he has found himself in domestic difficulties. Currently his wife is under indictment for corruption, as are two top aides and two cabinet ministers. Prosecutors say they have enough evidence to indict the president, too, but that he is protected from charges by presidential immunity.

The government has also sought to foster a Taiwanese identity separate from its citizens' Chinese identity, defying the "one China" policy on which US policy towards the region is based and prompting repeated diplomatic warnings from Washington not to provoke Beijing.

China passed a law in 2005 threatening war against Taiwan should the government there declare independence, and Washington has indicated it would come to Taipei's aid in such an eventuality.

With the stakes so high, "Taiwan should become a responsible stakeholder in this part of the world, and should not provoke mainland China," argues Ma Ying-jeou, candidate in next year's presidential elections for the opposition Kuomingtang (KMT) party, which favors eventual reunification with the mainland.

Mr. Ma is promising closer ties with Beijing and holding out the prospect of a peace treaty, ending the technical state of war that has persisted since Chinese Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan in 1949 in the face of the victorious Communist army.

He advocates sidestepping the contentious issue of sovereignty, which is "a problem we may not be able to solve in our lifetimes." But he argues that "we can manage it in such a way that it does not disrupt more urgent questions" such as economic ties.

Ma thinks this can be done by simply agreeing with Beijing's insistence that there is only one China, but leaving unsaid exactly what that means, without specifying which of the two entities that call themselves "China" is part of the other.

Such creative ambiguity also appears to appeal to Ma's opponent, Frank Hsieh, who is running for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Taking a softer line toward Beijing than the current government, Mr. Hsieh is nonetheless adamant that if Beijing "insists on Taiwan being part of China, we cannot accept that."

But "if China would allow some room for interpretation of 'one China' ... that would be a different story," he adds. "If they can allow different interpretations, OK."

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