- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

TAIPEI, Taiwan - President Chen Shui-bian promised Taiwan’s biggest-ever conference of foreign investors that he would improve relations with China by negotiating direct shipping and travel between the island and the mainland.

A few days later, he traveled to Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung and spat at China — telling a crowd of more than 100,000 supporters that Taiwan is a “sovereign and independent nation” and not part of China or any other country.

The mixed messages of late October came as Mr. Chen began his campaign for a second term as president of what is officially known as the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Supporters of Mr. Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expect their leader to spurn China’s demands that Taiwan reunite with the Chinese “motherland.”

But at the same time, Taiwan’s First World standard of living today is more dependent than ever on its trade with — and investments in — China than at any time in the past.

Friction between democratic Taiwan and authoritarian China typically generates plenty of heat in presidential campaigns, held here every four years, and that has U.S. officials worried.

“Election campaigns in Taiwan always increase the potential for cross-Strait misunderstandings and tensions,” one official said.

In each of the past two presidential contests, 1996 and 2000, campaign rhetoric provoked military muscle-flexing from China, forcing Washington to step in and calm things down.

This time, however, the United States finds itself heavily vested in Iraq. Moreover, the September 11 attacks and the war on terror have driven Washington and Beijing into a cooperative relationship that few would have imagined when the newly elected President George W. Bush promised to do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan against China.

Today, the Bush administration is depending on China to help negotiate an end to a crisis over North Korea’s decision to arm itself with atom bombs.

“This is what I call the new strategic cooperation between the U.S. and China,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a think tank based in Taipei.

“China is very much counting on the United States to pressure Taiwan not to push the envelope [of independence]. The purpose is: ‘You scratch my back and I scratch yours, and we’re covering each other’s problem, at least for the time being.’”

When speaking to international audiences, Mr. Chen, 53, avoids attacking China’s claim that Taiwan is a rebel province.

At a convention sponsored by the Taiwan Business Alliance last month, 2,000 guests were flown in at government expense to an orchid-festooned convention center in downtown Taipei.

Mr. Chen held out the carrot of Taiwan becoming a gateway to the huge Chinese market, saying he expected to establish direct shipping and travel links with mainland China sometime next year.

Ten days later, he flew to New York to receive an international human rights award at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where he reassured an audience of more than 1,000 that he would keep a 2000 inauguration pledge not to hold a referendum on whether Taiwan should declare independence.

Mr. Chen said that the centerpiece of his re-election campaign — calls for a new constitution and a referendum law to take domestic issues directly to voters and bypass the legislature — were merely steps to “deepen” his nation’s democracy and not an attempt to provoke China.

But back home, his typical stump speech evokes images of a bare-knuckled fighter ready to duke it out with Beijing.

“There are two countries, one on each side of the Taiwan Strait,” has become his standard applause line, whether speaking to private audiences such as a recent reunion of his high school graduating class or the Kaohsiung rally that was organized by pro-independence groups to back Mr. Chen’s call for a new constitution.

“Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country,” Mr. Chen told the rally, his speech climaxing an evening of fireworks, rock music and miniature hot-air balloons that dotted the sky.

“Taiwan is not part of another country and not one province of another country or not a special administrative region of another country.”

The reference to China was unmistakable, as was the reference to Hong Kong, which is designated a special administrative region of China.

By the time Mr. Chen brought up his no-independence-referendum pledge, he was as animated as any outdoor evangelist at the climax of a spiritual revival.

“We can’t have a referendum, but let’s take a vote right now,” Mr. Chen told a crowd that seemed to stretch beyond the horizon.

“Who wants to be part of China?” he roared. Except for a smattering of boos, the crowd fell silent and a sea of waving green flags froze.

“Who believes Taiwan is a sovereign and independent nation?” he asked.

Hand-held air horns blared as the crowd erupted with ear-splitting abandon.

China low-key

In the past, such rhetoric would have guaranteed a stern, even menacing reaction from Beijing.

During 1996 elections, when the rhetoric was tame by comparison, China fired unarmed missiles into shipping lanes less than 20 miles off of Taiwan’s two busiest ports. The United States responded by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.

In 2000, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji warned Taiwanese voters not to elect Mr. Chen and warned it would be “too late to repent” if they did.

China continues to protest whenever Mr. Chen, or any other Taiwanese official, pushes the issue of independence, but this time, the rhetoric from Beijing is without military threats.

“Chen, in his behavior and speeches recently, has totally ignored the common wishes of our Taiwanese compatriots to seek peace and stability,” China’s Li Weiyi, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan affairs office, told reporters last week.

Many attribute China’s restraint thus far to fear that history will repeat itself.

Taiwanese today still recall the speech by Mr. Zhu, who has since retired, and joke that he was Mr. Chen’s biggest campaign asset.

The speech came just days before elections in March 2000. Seething with anger, shouting and waving his finger for emphasis, the Chinese leader warned Taiwanese voters that the Chinese people were prepared to “spill all their blood” to protect the motherland.

The footage was replayed over and over on Taiwanese television, and the anger it generated helped Mr. Chen win by a narrow margin.

His victory ended more than five decades of rule by the Nationalist Party, which nominally favors eventual reunification with the mainland.

Pundits take it for granted that Mr. Chen’s re-election strategy is to again provoke an angry response from China. The main question, they ask, is how much further he will go between now and the March 20 election.

“There’s a saying: ‘It’s like slicing the salami, because either way he wins,’” said Kuo Chen-Lung, deputy managing editor of the China Times. “If China gets angry, history will repeat itself and Chen Shui-bian will win. If China doesn’t react, he can claim victory by saying: ‘See, I go inch by inch toward independence. Taiwan’s international status improves. My actions are not provocative.’”

Sisy Chen, the former spokesman for Mr. Chen’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party who now hosts a popular television talk show, says the president is a master of telling people what they want to hear.

“He doesn’t think people will make a comparison of his words from one day to the other,” said Miss Chen, who is no relation to the president. “He knows how to please the fundamentalists, the moderates, the political elite, the people in Washington.”

But she worries about the longer term. “We are playing a dangerous game. We think we can play the [United States]. We think we can play Beijing. We should instead be thinking 20 or 30 years in the future.”

History repeats

Instead, the current election looks more like a rerun of the past.

A split in the Nationalist Party four years ago produced two rival candidates — Lien Chan and James Soong — who split the Nationalist vote and made it possible for power to pass to Mr. Chen of the opposition DPP.

This time, the two rivals have reconciled, with Mr. Lien at the top and Mr. Soong, who heads his own party, the vice presidential candidate on a combined ticket.

Both candidates want to maintain an ambiguous status quo with the mainland, putting off the issue of independence vs. reunification for a long time.

Mr. Lien speaks of waiting “generations” to solve the impasse, making sure the word is plural.

Initially, polls showed the incumbent trailing by double-digits. By the time Mr. Chen returned from his recent trip abroad — a visit to Panama to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence from Colombia, with stops in New York and Alaska on either end — polls were showing the race a dead heat and some gave Mr. Chen a slight lead.

Even though the Nationalist ticket is viewed as far more conciliatory toward Beijing, no mainstream candidate today would dare to suggest reunification during his or her lifetime.

The notion of “one China,” a sacred mantra in Beijing and still a pillar of U.S. policy toward both China and Taiwan has little credence in Taiwan, even among the Nationalists.

One longtime Asia watcher calls “one China” a proposition that is constantly under assault in Taiwan.

“The Taiwanese are tugging at it, and when it comes down, no one knows whether we will find the Wizard of Oz or some alien monster from a Sigourney Weaver movie.”

DPP officials and rank-and-file supporters look at Mr. Chen’s call for a new constitution — which he hopes to have in place by 2006 — as an opportunity to change the island’s name from Republic of China, to the Republic of Taiwan, or simply Taiwan.

Though the vast majority of Taiwanese — 60 percent to 75 percent — in poll after poll say they prefer to maintain the “status quo,” passions have a way of taking over during presidential campaigns.

Political rallies are very much like rock concerts that move from city to city, generating Woodstock-size crowds.

What would be a routine stump speech in the United States generates excitement comparable to that of a Redskins win at FedEx Field, in overtime on Monday night.

The sheer joy generated by a presidential election is enough to humble the most cynical visitor from the West, especially those who recall the days when Taiwan was a single-party state crawling with secret police who would arrest anyone overheard advocating a declaration of independence from China or speaking ill of the government.

“I walk to my office, I’m convinced we’re on the right track. I ask myself: ‘Why should I have to give up my freedom like the people of Hong Kong, so people cannot practice Falun Gong in the park? What’s wrong with that? They have never done anything to harm anyone. Why shouldn’t they be able to practice in Taiwan,’” said Alexander Huang, vice minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.

“Then I look at China and I say to myself: ‘They have a long way to go.’”

China is attempting to eradicate the Falun Gong sect with mass arrests, long prison sentences and political re-education camps, fearing its practice of meditating in public parks will undermine government authority.

Beijing is also attempting to ban the sect in Hong Kong.

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Cold War rivals

Taiwan separated from the mainland in 1949 when the retreating armies of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party fled the mainland ahead of victorious communists under Mao.

The United States continued to back Chiang, sending the U.S. 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait in 1950 amid fears that the outbreak of the Korean War would give China an opportunity to retake Taiwan.

Chiang died in 1975 still dreaming of a day when he would lead an army from Taiwan to liberate the communist-ruled mainland.

His legacy faded In the late 1980s as Taiwan began to democratize. It ended martial law, legalized opposition parties, and the DPP was formed.

By the early 1990s, the Taiwanese were electing lawmakers to the national legislature, which became world famous for its fist-pounding brawls, which still erupt from time to time.

Former President Lee Teng-hui began to refer to Taiwan as a sovereign state in the mid-1990s, prompting China to end negotiations on reopening direct shipping and transportation links with the mainland that have been severed since 1949.

Mr. Chen has made several offers to restart the talks during the past four years, only to be rebuffed by Beijing, which refuses to deal with him directly because of his longtime support for Taiwanese independence.

Booming trade

One irony of the Taiwan-China relationship is that business ties between the two continue to grow, year after year, at times of crisis and times of relative calm, beyond anyone’s expectations.

Up to a million Taiwanese — out of a population of 23 million — are believed to be living and working today in China.

Forget the image of a swashbuckling businessmen. The Taiwanese expatriates include families with basic middle-class aspirations such as buying a car, owning a home and sending the children to college.

They earn a living working for an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Taiwanese companies that have invested more than $100 billion in China, much of it in factories that have moved from pricey Taiwan to take advantage of lower labor costs on the mainland.

Viewed from another perspective, the United States is running a $100 billion-plus annual trade deficit with mainland China — a growing source of friction in Sino-U.S. ties.

Taiwan, on the other hand, enjoys a $20 billion trade surplus with China, much of it in components for electronic gadgets.

Taiwan makes high-tech parts and ships them to China, where they are assembled into televisions, cameras and other gadgets and sent to the United States.

An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of the electronics products that China sells to the United States are assembled in Taiwanese-owned factories on the Chinese mainland.

“You have to understand Chinese culture,” Shih Yen-shiang, Taiwan’s vice minister for economic affairs, told reporters at the recent business conference. “Of course it’s difficult to separate business from politics, but in reality it happens.”

Because direct transportation and shipping between the two is illegal, the trade moves through places like Hong Kong and Singapore, and with the help of shell companies set up in faraway places such as the British Virgin Islands.

Even though Taipei and Shanghai are about an hour’s flying time apart, business executives typically spend an entire day transiting through Hong Kong because there are no direct flights.

It’s not that business investors are oblivious to the threats of war between the two.

Each year, China adds about 75 ballistic missiles to its arsenal — now totaling 450 missiles — pointing at Taiwan.

The Mainland Affairs Council’s Mr. Huang — an authority on the Chinese military who spent years at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and as a professor at the University of Maryland — said that just 5 percent of those missiles could “decapitate” Taiwan.

He gestured out the window of his 15th-floor office to an 8-by-4-block area of downtown Taipei that includes the presidential offices and just about every government ministry.

“They could decapitate Taiwan with just three minutes’ notice. This office is ground zero. I wouldn’t even have time to get down the elevator.”

His comments came with a bit of tongue in cheek as he showed a visitor his neatly pressed uniform in the corner of his office for a lieutenant junior grade in Taiwan’s naval reserves.

“Beijing’s war planners know it will take a long time before they build up the capacity to invade, and they may never be able to do it,” Mr. Huang said.

“We need to find a very difficult balance between giving support to economic links and dealing with the military threat,” he said. “China is our biggest trading partner and the biggest source of our trade surplus.”


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