- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000


Taiwan's new president, Chen Shui-bian, has clearly gone the extra mile to reassure all those who feared that his election would lead to further confrontation with mainland China. As the first president of Taiwan hailing not from the Nationalists, the Kuomingtang, which have governed the island nation for over half a century, Mr. Chen's election aroused much speculation about what the future would hold for the ever tense China-Taiwan relations. So far, however, you have to be, well, a Chinese communist to find any fault in his conciliatory statements. And even they have not found much to quibble with if you discount the standard bluster and rhetoric.
The position of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to which Mr. Chen belongs, on unification with China has been an evolving one in recent years. The party was founded in the 1980s on the concept of Taiwanese independence, and officially banned as a consequence. When President Chiang Ching-kuo legalized political opposition parties as a part of the country's democratization process, the DPP became the voice of native Taiwanese (as opposed to families driven from the mainland by Mao's forces). Independence has been an integral part of the DPP platform from the beginning.
The closer the DPP moved towards power, however, the less rigid this platform became. By the mid-1990s, the DPP had downgraded its demands to a referendum on independence. And it is not clear that Mr. Chen's election even had much to do with that. What concerned most voters was the problem of government corruption among the Nationalists, and here Mr. Chen, who became popular as the mayor of the capital of Taipei, had widespread appeal as an outsider to the system.
This weekend, the new president went further than ever to show that he had no desire for a confrontation with Beijing. In his inaugural address on Saturday, he stated emphatically that he had no intention of declaring independence or even calling a referendum. On Sunday, Mr. Chen talked of lifting 50-year-old ban on direct travel, trade and shipping between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. He has even spoken vaguely of the "One China" principle, which suggests that Mr. Chen may be prepared to go further than his predecessor Lee Teng-hui in seeking improved relations with Beijing.
For its part, Beijing's reaction has been fairly low key, with the exception of a sourpuss objection that Mr. Chen was too vague when talking about "One China" and an all-purpose accusation of harboring "splittist" tendencies. It seems likely that Beijing is hoping that the desire to avoid confrontation (as embodied in the growing number of Chinese missiles installed along the coastal regions facing Taiwan) combined with the drive to do business will eventually bring the new government to heel. And Beijing has been indicating a desire for a faster timetable for unification, to boot.
Mr. Chen will find himself performing a delicate balancing act, as did his predecessors before him. Essential for each and every decision he makes, however, will be preserving the political and economic freedoms of his people. Better relations between the two Chinese republics will certainly be welcome, given the explosive nature of the issue, which involves the United States inevitably as a long-standing friend of Taiwan, pledged to its security. With a 77 percent approval rating following the weekend's inauguration, the new president seems to have garnered the faith of the Taiwanese people to handle the situation. Still, Mr. Chen ought not let his desire to placate Beijing lead to any compromise on their interests which he has been elected to protect.

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