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JULY 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 27 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Did He Say 'One China'?
Chen tried to, but the DPP balked
By ALLEN T. CHENG

It was something of a bombshell. Taiwan's new government, President Chen Shui-bian told American visitors last week, was prepared to accept a 1992 consensus with Beijing that "there is one China, but each side could have its own interpretation." That accord had helped produce intermittent cross-strait talks, which were suspended last year when then president Lee Teng-hui declared that Taiwan actually had a "special state-to-state relationship" with the mainland. A return to the 1992 consensus was a Beijing precondition for a resumption of the dialogue — and Chen seemed to be complying. But a backlash quickly erupted, especially from Chen's own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which formally espouses political independence for Taiwan. The next day, Taipei appeared to backpedal on the president's offer, leaving everyone scratching their heads.

One problem, say Chen's critics, was that he didn't forewarn his top advisers of his announcement. Many in the DPP refuse to recognize the 1992 accord and fear the president may be too eager to please China. Their heated response to Chen's latest offer prompted an emergency press conference by his mainland policy chief to "clarify" his statement. "The president's comments were consistent with his [inaugural] speech on May 20," said Tsai Ing-wen. "One China, with each side having its own interpretation, is the term our government uses to describe the 1992 negotiation process. We never accepted Beijing's 'one-China principle.' "

Clearly, Chen was trying to break the impasse with China, but was being restrained by hardliners in his own party. Parris Chang, a DPP legislator and foreign-relations specialist, doesn't mince words. "Just ignore what Chen said," says Chang. "He has tried to spin it, explain it away. When something isn't said at the right time, it becomes a policy error." Nor was Beijing impressed. "The crux of the issue now is that Taiwan authorities refuse to recognize the 'one-China' principle and lack sincerity about improving cross-strait relations," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzhao. He added that there could be no dialogue until Taipei unambiguously accepts Beijing's position that Taiwan is a part of "one China."

A lawyer and seasoned politician, Chen seldom suffers gaffes. But the slippery slope of cross-strait relations is something even he is finding hard to navigate. To some DPP members, the president's well-received May 20 speech already gave too many concessions. Among other things, Chen promised not to promote Lee Teng-hui's "state-to-state" notion and to retain the National Reunification Guidelines, which call for eventual cross-strait reunion. "Beijing never reciprocated," says Chang. "So people felt you can't give away everything without getting something in return." As result, the DPP is unlikely to act, during a party congress on July 15-16, on a proposal to drop a clause in its charter calling for the establishment of a "Republic of Taiwan."

Yet China's leaders may be starting to soften a bit. They seem to like Chen's declaration that Taipei may support Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. (Lee's government had opposed China's bid for this year's Games.) And on July 3, Xiamen Mayor Zhu Yayan invited his Kaohsiung counterpart, Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, to visit his city on the coast of Fujian province, opposite Taiwan. Hsieh happens to be the DPP's new chairman. The move is seen as an overture by Beijing to his party's hierarchy. Problem is, Hsieh also is a major rival of Chen's within the DPP, and the Xiamen invitation may be seen as a slight to the president.

Indeed, Beijing has so far been largely ignoring Chen. Instead, it is reaching out to Taiwan businessmen with investments in the mainland and even to the island's legislators, especially members of the fledgling People First Party, which is much more China-friendly than the DPP. Dubbed the "second-track" approach by Beijing, this strategy aims directly at the Taiwan public, bypassing the government altogether. Don't expect mainland leaders to have a clear stance on Taiwan until after their annual meeting at the seaside resort of Beidaihe in August, says Andrew Yang, a defense analyst in Taipei. "It is best to wait for a final response from Beijing," he adds.

Meantime, Chen is trying to forge a "cross-party consensus" on cross-strait ties. At the end of July, he will appoint some 30 people from all walks of life to a task force to help him draw up clearer guidelines. "The new government needs to do this, especially since there hasn't been a substantive response from Beijing," says Philip Yang, a politics professor at National Taiwan University. "It's hard for the Chen administration to act alone. It must form a consensus." Yang says China should respond to the Taiwan government, not just businessmen and politicians. "Otherwise, the stalemate will continue," he predicts. Yet Beijing plainly distrusts Chen, once an ardent advocate of Taiwan independence. That may explain its inability to respond to his overtures. The path to any new talks looks as difficult as ever.

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