Taiwan: Chen Baits China -- But to No Avail

5 MINS READSep 30, 2003 | 19:46 GMT
Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian said Sept. 29 that his Democratic Progressive Party would push for a new constitution for the island by 2006. The move is part of a strategy to bait China into provocative steps during the run up to Taiwan's elections in March 2004. However, thus far Chen's plan has fallen flat.
Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian said Sept. 29 that his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would push for a new constitution for the island by 2006. Chen's move to lobby for constitutional reform is part of a strategy to bait China into provocative steps during the run up to Taiwan's elections in March 2004. If the Chinese leadership repeats the aggressive behavior it conducted in the past two elections, Chen likely would receive a badly needed boost in the polls. So far, though, Beijing has refused to bite and Chen faces defeat — leaving the president with little option but to push harder. As chairman of the party, Chen told supporters at the DPP's 17th anniversary celebration that he is set to draw up a new constitution in 2006, when the party turns 20 years old. Chen's latest political move is two-pronged. First, it helps differentiate the DPP from its rival Kuomintang (KMT) and its offshoot, the People's First Party (PFP), by calling for reform of Taiwan's constitution, which was adopted in 1947 under KMT rule. The constitution has been revised several times since it was created — frequently because of DPP lobbying efforts — and is still widely held to need further reform. Second, it is seen as a step toward Taiwan's independence from China — the key rallying point of the DPP's political platform. In the latest polls, Chen and the DPP trail by about 10 points behind the joint ticket of KMT Chairman Lien Chan for president and PFP Chairman James Soong for vice president — a trend that likely will be exacerbated once the campaign begins in earnest. Hampered by a sluggish economy and high unemployment, Chen is hard pressed to use his administration's track record as the basis for a presidential campaign. Instead, the incumbent is focusing on the most salient topic his party can offer: Taiwan's future political status. By raising the issue of constitutional reform, Chen is signaling that Taiwan could make further strides toward independence during his next term. The island already is unsettled by a controversy over its name. On Sept. 1 the nation began issuing passports with the word "Taiwan" on the cover under the words "Republic of China." And on Sept. 6, former President Lee Tung Hui led a demonstration in Taipei of about 150,000 people, calling for the island to change its official name from the Republic of China to simply "Taiwan." Independence is an emotional topic for millions of island residents who take pride in the nation's economic and political achievements of the past few decades and feel they have little in common with the mainland. However, renaming the island would require a constitutional change. Prior to his call for constitutional reform, Chen advocated a national referendum political process. Such a process is a sensitive topic because it is viewed as a precedent for a vote on formal independence. In fact, a special session ended July 10 without Taiwan's Legislative Yuan voting on a bill that would have paved the way for referendums on the construction of a nuclear power plant and Taiwan's status with the World Health Organization. However, the issue has not gone away. After the Parliament reconvened Sept. 5, Chen renewed calls for a referendum process prior to or during the presidential election — regardless of whether a referendum law is passed or not. And in the past few days, Chen and his party have said that a referendum is the only way the legislature can start the constitutional reform process. Chen's push for legal reform is not only a clever, stealthy call for pro-independence voters to back him as the president, but also a way to needle China's leaders and provoke a response. In the past two elections, Beijing's saber rattling has been a great help to pro-independence candidates. In 1996 China staged ballistic missile exercises in the Taiwan Strait to frighten the Taiwanese population away from re-electing maverick KMT and pro-independence candidate Lee. The strategy failed; Lee won a landslide victory. In the 2000 elections, Chen carried the election mainly because the KMT and PFP, which support reunification with China, split the vote and all but handed Chen the presidency. However, the race was extremely close, and the PFP's Soong held a marginal lead in the polls heading into the election. Incensed that a pro-independence DPP candidate might become president, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned that the Chinese people were ready to shed blood and sacrifice their lives to defend the unity of their motherland. Zhu's bellicose comments are believed to have struck a discordant note with voters and strongly contributed to Soong's defeat. It seems that this time around Beijing has learned its lesson and is holding its missiles — and its tongues. Chinese leaders so far have met Chen's challenges with a relatively muted response and appear to be content to watch passively from the sidelines, especially while Chen falls behind in the polls. In contrast, Washington has been very vocal about Chen's latest political move. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has reminded Chen of his pledge not to change Taiwan's political status. "We noted in August of 2000 that President Chen pledged not to declare independence, not to change the name of Taiwan's government, not to add state-to-state theory to the constitution, and not to promote a referendum that would change the status quo on independence or unification," Boucher said. Chen's strategy of goading Beijing into helping his campaign does not appear to be working, and there is no reason to believe it will. He can try to push harder to provoke China, but Beijing is demonstrating unprecedented self-control and Washington already is signaling that Chen is testing its limits. Unless China's leaders act imprudently — a possibility that cannot be entirely discounted — and as long as the alliance between Chen's rivals Lien and Soong stands firm, there likely will be a new Taiwanese president in 2004.

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