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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Has President Chen learned his lesson?

HONG KONG -- Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who narrowly won a disputed election in March, is without doubt the Bush administration's least favorite democratically elected leader.

After a week in Washington talking to various officials, the impression is unmistakable that Chen, who is to be inaugurated to a second term next week, is neither trusted nor liked by most American officials.

In fact, if Chen, who was given a warm welcome in New York last October, were to ask for another transit visa now, he would be turned down flat. He is simply not welcome in the United States, at least not until he proves that he has turned over a new leaf.

During the election campaign, Chen repeatedly ignored U.S. President George W. Bush's warnings not to provoke Beijing by harping on sensitive political issues, such as the holding of a referendum and the drafting of a new constitution. Finally, in December, Bush took the unprecedented step of rebuking him in public. With Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, Bush branded the Taiwan leader as someone who "may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

The U.S. reprimand was a major blow to Chen, and he may well have lost the election were it not for the botched assassination attempt the day before the election, which won him sympathy votes.

Despite the reprimand, Chen went ahead with the holding of a referendum on March 20, the same day as the presidential election, though he did tone down the language. Instead of calling on China to withdraw missiles aimed at Taiwan, the proposal asked whether the island should strengthen its antimissile defenses. The referendum was defeated when less than 50 percent of the electorate took part.

Since his narrow electoral victory, Chen has talked about drafting a new constitution, which is to be voted on in another referendum in 2006 and to come into effect in 2008. Beijing has called this a timetable for Taiwan independence.

Washington is now trying to make sure that Chen does not say anything provocative in his inaugural speech next Thursday. It also wants to ensure that any constitutional revision will not touch on sensitive sovereignty issues, such as changing the name of the country from "Republic of China" to "Taiwan" or redrawing the territorial boundaries. In fact, it has told the Taiwan leader that if he does not behave himself, Bush is prepared to deliver a second public rebuke.

Since the U.S. is the guarantor of Taiwan's security, any deterioration of Taipei-Washington relations will be taken seriously on the island. Chen has now achieved the dubious distinction of antagonizing both China, which threatens its security, and the U.S., which is committed to Taiwan's defense.

Has Chen learned his lesson? C.J. Chen, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S., thinks that he has. "I believe our president and government have learned what we should do and what we should avoid," he said in an interview.

Washington's antipathy is directed at Chen, not at Taiwan. In fact, his vice president, Annette Lu, is likely to be allowed to transit the U.S. later this month on her way to Central America. There is considerable support for Taiwan's democracy, but little interest in helping Chen with his proindependence agenda.

There is also a widespread feeling in Washington that the Chen administration and the Taiwan public underestimate the military threat posed by China. The Chen administration has dismissed China as little more than a paper tiger, in part because of its conviction that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's aid if worst came to worst.

"It's a big, big mistake" for Taiwan to consider China a paper tiger and to lower its defense budget, one official said. "We don't want them to buy weapons to please us, but because there is a real threat."

However, Lin Wen-chang, a senior adviser to Taiwan's National Security Council, disagrees. "China is not strong enough to take over Taiwan," he said at a conference in Washington on May 6. "We have no intention to cross China's red lines," but at the same time "we shouldn't allow China to define the red lines."

In the view of the U.S., the greatest danger is a miscalculation on the part of either Taipei or Beijing. That is why Washington keeps urging the two sides to resume their dialogue, broken off five years ago. But Beijing insists that talks can only take place if Taiwan accepts the "one China" principle -- which Chen rejects.

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

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