The Magazine

Chen's Balancing Act

Democratic Taiwan fends off Beijing and placates Washington.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By ELLEN BORK
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Taipei

ON THURSDAY, Taiwan's president Chen Shui-bian delivered his much anticipated second inaugural address to an audience of 200,000 huddled against the rain on the grounds of the presidential palace. The speech capped months of tension between Washington and Taipei and Beijing. For nearly a year, Beijing's relentless demands that Washington abandon Taiwan had dominated U.S.-China relations, spilling over into other issues like efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear threat and Beijing's subversion of democracy in Hong Kong. China even scored an American rebuke of President Chen in the midst of his presidential election campaign.

On top of all that, the campaign ended with a bizarre election eve assassination attempt against Chen and his vice president. When, the next day, Chen won by a wafer-thin margin, the opposition Nationalists went into a prolonged campaign of protests and legal challenges that persist to this day. (After presenting President Chen with the seal of office, the president of Taiwan's legislature, a Nationalist politician, left the ceremony to join a protest across town.) Days before the inauguration, China warned against a "lurch toward independence" that would cause Taiwan to be "consumed in [Chen's] own flames."

With that kind of build-up, expectations for the inaugural speech ran very high. The future of cross-strait relations, not to mention Taiwan's relationship with Washington, rested in Chen's hands. In the event, the speech was almost anticlimactic.

Chen debunked the notion that he was bound and determined to declare independence and bring about a crisis with Beijing by offering a major concession. Independence, sovereignty, and territorial issues would be excluded from constitutional reforms planned for the second term. Instead, Chen emphasized the need to update the constitution to improve domestic governance through a process of "constitutional reengineering." Just as important, revisions would not be made by referendum, an exercise Washington felt constituted an act of "state creation" that would drive Beijing over the edge. Chen also said, however, that Taiwan's people "would not exclude any possibility" for future relations with China, "so long as there is the consent of the 23 million people of Taiwan."

The question now is, can China take yes for an answer? Judging by a barrage of post-inauguration statements, the answer is it can't. "No one will pay any attention to his words, even if he talks at great length," said a top PRC adviser on Taiwan. A chorus of state-controlled media has also chimed in. "Impossible to see any sincerity," pronounced one paper, condemning the speech as a "game of words." "Another sham," according to the China Daily, the English-language propaganda organ.

Perhaps the more important question is, can Washington take yes for an answer? It's hard to see why not. Washington's concerns clearly found their way into the speech. In fact, while it was being drafted, some of Chen's closest aides went to Washington--something they are not freely allowed to do--to meet with administration officials. After the speech, White House spokesman Scott McClellan praised Chen for being "responsible and constructive." In fact, in addition to addressing the Bush administration's concerns over the sensitive matters of the constitution and independence, President Chen himself repeated virtually word for word Washington's insistence that there be "no unilateral change to the status quo" in the Taiwan Strait.

He also took a step toward satisfying another of Washington's top complaints about his leadership. U.S. officials claim Taiwanese officials do not appreciate the dire military situation they face. Taipei's reluctance to spend the money needed to upgrade its defenses has been a sore point among even those American officials most sympathetic to Taiwan since the Pentagon forecasts that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait will begin to favor Beijing as soon as six months from now. On Thursday, President Chen declared an imperative to upgrade Taiwan's defenses.

That commitment, coupled with the concessions and conciliation, ought to bring Washington and Taipei closer than they have been in years. However, if it wants Taiwan to grasp the threat it faces, Washington will have a concession of its own to make: It will have to confront the myth of the "status quo" it has created in the face of evidence that no such condition exists. On Beijing's side, there is the military build-up, including at least 500 missiles positioned opposite Taiwan, and China's persistent claims that Taiwan has already met Beijing's criteria for attack.