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WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE
Hardball
China once again throws the ball back in Taiwan's court
Commentary by DON SHAPIRO

ALSO
Taiwan Stands Up: Toward the Dawn of a Rising Era
The full text of ROC President Chen Shui-bian's inauguration speech on May 20, 2000

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Chen Shui-bian's victory in Taiwan's March 18 presidential elections--bringing to power the Democratic Progressive Party that has long advocated the island's permanent separation from China--raised concerns that Beijing would react by increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait or even resort to force. Beijing stated repeatedly that it would take Chen's inaugural address as a litmus test of his intentions. Accept the principle of one China, it warned, or be prepared to shoulder the consequences.



The speech, delivered Saturday in the square in front of Taipei's Presidential Office Building following Chen's swearing-in, appeared to fulfill the new leader's aims: satisfying China with expressions of goodwill while adhering to Taiwan's stance that it would enter into negotiations with the PRC only as an equal partner.

The initial response from Beijing, aside from some questioning of Chen's sincerity, was relatively positive. Chinese spokesmen moderated previous preconditions for the resumption of talks between the two sides, cut off by the PRC since 1995.

Though only a brief section toward the end of the 37-minute address was devoted to Taiwan-mainland relations, Chen touched on several key points designed to assure Beijing that he is not a radical proponent of Taiwan independence:

- Emphasis on the common "ancestral, cultural and historical background" shared by Taiwan and China;
- Reiteration of his pledge during the election campaign not to declare independence or hold a referendum on the issue as long as Beijing refrains from the use of force;
- Acceptance, at least conceptually, of the notion of one China. Said Chen: "We believe that the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future one China.

At the same time, Chen underscored the sovereign nature of the Republic of China on Taiwan and the need to build relations with China based on the "principles of democracy and parity" and "respecting the free choice of the people."

Elsewhere in the speech, Chen covered such topics as human rights (promising to push for passage of the International Bill of Rights as a domestic statute), the importance of an impartial and independent judiciary, commitment to environmental protection, and his intention to confine the government's role in the economy to that of a "service-provider" rather than "manager."

The most enthusiastic applause from the audience greeted his promise to create a "clean political environment," eradicating corruption and the involvement of organized crime in politics.

Chen mentioned three other people by name in his speech. He referred respectfully to "Mr. Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang Zemin" as creators of a "miracle of economic openness" in China, and said that his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, "deserves our highest praise and heartfelt honor for his promotion of democratic reforms" during his 12 years as president.

Reaction
While viewers around the world watched the historic inauguration speech live on CNN, it was just another day across the straits in mainland China. Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television only briefly showed Chen saying that he would not proclaim independence and that the future one China is an issue that both sides could discuss.

Chinese who had hoped to catch the event using their satellite dishes had been warned against doing so. Hours before Chen's speech, Beijing residents were reminded by radio that satellite dishes were banned in the capital. Chinese papers on Sunday also did not report the speech, so most Chinese had no idea what Chen had said. (Interestingly, Internet sites did report it.)

The only thing that was reported in the Chinese press was the statement issued on Saturday by the Communist Party's Taiwan Work Office and the Taiwan Affairs Office under the State Council, China's cabinet. The joint statement, reported by Xinhua hours after Chen's speech, bluntly condemned the "goodwill reconciliation" offered as having a "lack of sincerity".

In his 4,500-word speech, Chen stressed that while he recognizes the policy of one China and would not declare independence, it was something that would be discussed in the future. The Chinese government statement condemned him for attaching the 'future' condition. He should not have "refuted the reality that there is but 'one China' and that Taiwan is a part of China by saying one China is something of the 'future'", it said.

Yet, the relatively moderate statement, which had clearly been prepared beforehand, notably never mentioned Chen by name. It was a clear indication, say observers, that Chinese authorities are willing to talk to him. Historically, China names the people it considers to be its enemies. For example, Taiwan's new outspoken Vice President Annette Lu has been attacked by name frequently in the Chinese press. "Not mentioning him by name means that the Chinese government can talk to Chen Shui-bian," notes one Western analyst in Beijing. "Chen opened the doors for dialogue and the Chinese government clearly wants to keep them open," she adds.

The statement also harked back to the 1992 meeting in Singapore between the mainland's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), when China and Taiwan agreed that Taiwan was not a part of the territory of the People's Republic but of Chinese territory. "This is the basis that they want to go back to so that they can have dialogue," notes the analyst. "China hasn't lost hope. They made it clear they can talk," she adds.

Yet, while China is willing to talk, the statement concluded with an obvious warning that the Taiwan question could not be dragged on "indefinitely." Beijing has already hinted that if the stalemate continues, China could be forced to act.

China has once again thrown the ball back in Taiwan's court. In the world of China-Taiwan relations, not much has changed.

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