Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Is Taiwan's President Getting Ready to Abandon Independence?

It's Not Easy Being Green

"Green", in this case being the signature color of the pro-independence political forces in Taiwan.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has dismayed the pro-independence base of his DPP party with his strangely passive and lackluster response to the mainland visits by his rivals, KMT boss Lien Chan and PFP leader James Soong.

Maybe, as the Washington Post speculates, Chen is preparing for his Nixon-in-China moment, when he leverages his unique political capital as Taiwan independence spokesman to achieve the otherwise unachievable rapprochement with China.

Or maybe Chen has been caught in the middle of an anxious, awkward sideways scuttle from a pro-independence stance to a centrist, business-as-usual position.

Or maybe both.

Taiwanese politics, like those of Japan, are personality-centered and faction-driven. In the quest for power, alliances can form and policies can change with remarkable speed.

And there are signs that Chen Shui-bian and his faction are feeling boxed-in by their appeals to local Taiwanese pro-independence chauvinism.

Playing the independence card has earned Chen two terms as president. But five years of catering to the pro-independence fire-eaters and trying to govern Taiwan from a minority position in the teeth of opposition and out-and-out obstructionism by the KMT and PFP has been an exercise in futility and frustration.

The Taiwanese popular consensus and, not coincidentally, the business money are squarely in the middle—against the perils of reunification, against the dangerous and unprofitable heroics of independence, in favor of the fuzzy status quo.

By letting his policies drift to the center, Chen can gain the money, votes, and legislative muscle that accrue to a high profile moderate, and wean himself from dependence on the organizational muscle of the militant New Tide faction that currently sets the DPP agenda.

A strong indication that something is cooking is the fact the Chen has declined to play the pro-independence/anti-mainland card in the run-up to this weekend’s National Assembly elections, even as Lien and Soong are feted on the mainland and Chen is sidelined and left looking somewhat foolish trying to gain political traction from a presidential trip to the Marshall and Gilbert Islands.

As a result, the DPP is angry, divided, and ill-equipped to compete.

If the DPP doesn't do well in the elections, Chen may have to jump before he gets pushed into bed with James Soong, a charismatic ex-KMT supremo whose PFP party has a decided big-business, pro-mainland tilt but limited electoral appeal among the bentu (indigenous) Taiwanese who trace their local ancestry on the island to the years before the arrival of the mainlanders in 1949.

Chen paved the way this February by executing a ten-point communique with Soong outlining their areas of agreement on relations with the mainland.

Then Lin Chong-pin, a mainland-affairs guru for the Taiwan government said this in an interview in May:

As I have said publicly before, they (the PRC) have been toying with the name "United States of Chinese Republics." And they have been studying the concept of overlapping sovereignty -- by saying that sovereignty can be overlapped, but it cannot be divided. They have been studying the cases of the three seats held by the former Soviet Union in the UN. These three seats, since 1945 to 1992, have been held by Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine. And so, I think -- I'm pretty sure -- they have been looking at these things, toying with these ideas. What the final conclusion they will arrive at is not clear. I don't think they're clear yet. They just realized "one country, two systems" does not work.

Maybe the mainland’s thinking about it, or maybe Lin—and Chen--want them to think about it.

In either case, if Chen Shui-bian can normalize relations with China and at the same time mollify the pro-independence wing with assurances of Taiwanese autonomy and a seat at the U.N….

…and carry his large faction into a legislative alliance with James Soong’s PFP in opposition to the KMT and a rump DPP…

…it looks like he’s got a winner.

Of course, Chen can’t talk to the mainland directly right now. Neither the Chinese Communists or his own DPP base will permit it.

But James Soong can.

Makes you wonder what secret messages Soong will be transmitting to China’s Hu Jintao on Chen’s behalf.

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