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Friday, Aug. 23, 2002

REPEATING THE UNSPEAKABLE

Chen eyes Taiwan's 'own road'


HONG KONG -- In the days following Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's provocative declaration Aug. 3 that Taiwan and China are separate countries, there has been much speculation regarding his motives, with some analysts suggesting it was an unintentional slip of the tongue. Others said his words were spoken in the heat of an enthusiastic address to constituents who strongly support Taiwan independence.

It is much more likely, though, that Chen -- and his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui -- have carefully planned their recent utterances, making it clear that they intend that Taiwan remain permanently separate from China. And, while doing so, the Chen administration adopted what might be called a carrot-and-stick strategy by making conciliatory gestures to the mainland by offering to improve economic relations.

The record shows that the past few weeks -- aside from being marked by a series of provocative utterances by Chen and Lee -- have also been characterized by moves that can be interpreted as overtures to the mainland, such as new regulations that ease restrictions on doing business. The Chen administration, it appears, has no intention to disrupt the important economic relationship with the mainland, now Taiwan's top export market.

Beijing, too, seems to be moving in the direction of separating economics from politics. Vice Premier Qian Qichen said recently that direct trade as well as postal and transportation links -- dubbed the "three links" -- are economic and not political issues. Yet, while both sides are paying lip service to separating economics from politics, it is unlikely that this will actually happen soon.

Qian said it is not necessary for Taiwan to embrace the "one China" principle for the three links to go ahead. However, he imposed another condition: that these be considered domestic links within one country. To many in Taiwan, that seemed to be merely a different way of insisting on one China.

It is interesting to note that, in the days immediately before Chen first warned that Taiwan might "walk down our own road," the government announced it would lift a ban on direct investment in the mainland and said Chinese citizens working for international companies could, in the future, be transferred to work for those companies in Taiwan.

Two days after this first "own road" speech, the Taiwan government announced that high-tech personnel would be allowed to work on the mainland for Chinese companies that posed no threat to Taiwan's security; however, such personnel were barred from working for Chinese government agencies, military institutions and organizations affiliated with the Communist Party.

The following day, the government disclosed that Taiwanese insurance companies would be allowed to set up branches and subsidiaries on the mainland after the draft of legal measures is completed, possibly as soon as August. That same day, Lee warned that Taiwan had only six years left in which to strengthen its national identity, or it would be swallowed up by China. This was followed four days later with Chen's remark -- this time even more definite -- that Taiwan would "go its own way."

The next day, the Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council announced measures to facilitate travel between the two sides of the strait. It said Fujian-based Taiwan businessmen and their immediate family members would be allowed to travel freely between the mainland and Taiwan via the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

Three days later, on Aug. 3, Chen jolted Taiwan, China and the United States by urging consideration of legislation to proceed with a referendum on whether the island should formally declare its independence from China. He did so during an address via satellite to a meeting of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations in Japan. On the same occasion, Lee called for the building up of Taiwan into a new country.

A week later, following war threats from Beijing, Taiwan held out another olive branch by announcing that, beginning Aug. 12, it would approve applications from semiconductor companies to start investing in chip manufacturing plants in China, a controversial move within Taiwan.

And so, during the last month or so, while Chen and Lee were roiling the political waters, the Taiwan government has been making overtures to Beijing, trying to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand.

What, one might ask, has been the point of the whole exercise? The answer is simple. When Lee made his "state-to-state" remarks in 1999, there was an uproar in China. This time, China again reacted strongly. But if Chen, or someone else, should publicly make similar statements again in the future, the reaction from the rest of the world is likely to be milder. And if China continues to react strongly, people will say that it's overreacting, that there's nothing new, that it's all been said before.

And so, what used to be unthinkable is now no longer unthinkable. What used to be unspeakable has now been said. That may well be Chen's motive, to make the idea of Taiwan independence seem uncontroversial.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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