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Friday, Jan. 13, 2006

Chen shares independence dream anew

HONG KONG -- To the consternation of his political foes and the delight of his allies, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian on New Year's Day delivered an address in which he made it clear that he was as determined as ever to press ahead for the de jure independence of Taiwan, a move that Beijing has promised to meet with military action.

Despite a calamitous defeat in local elections last month when the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which favors reconciliation with mainland China, gained control of two-thirds of local governments on the island, the president, who had been expected to soften his position toward China, insisted he was still intent on pressing for a new constitution to be adopted by a referendum in 2007.

Chen, who said the government did not "let election outcomes derail our efforts and resolve," disclosed his plan by asking rhetorically: "Should conditions in Taiwan society become sufficiently mature, who is to say that holding a referendum on the new constitution by 2007 is an impossibility?"

Two years ago, in his inaugural speech when beginning his second term, the president had discussed his "constitutional re-engineering project," which "aims to enhance good governance and increase administrative efficiency" to "foster long-term stability and prosperity of the nation."

"By the time I complete my presidency in 2008," he said, "I hope to hand to the people of Taiwan and to our country a new version of our Constitution." Interestingly, in Chinese, the words were "a new constitution."

To allay concern in Washington -- and alarm in Beijing -- that he was crafting a new constitution in order to declare independence, Chen added: "I am fully aware that consensus has yet to be reached on issues related to national sovereignty, territory and the subject of unification/independence; therefore, let me explicitly propose that these particular issues be excluded from the present constitutional re-engineering project."

However, Chen, in his New Year address, made it clear that the situation was still in a state of flux and that "conditions in Taiwan society" might change. This suggests that he could easily proclaim next year that a consensus has emerged within Taiwan society, and thus justify the inclusion of sensitive issues, such as national sovereignty and independence, in the new constitution.

Ma Ying-jeou, chairman of the Kuomintang, immediately took Chen to task for again raising the issue of a new constitution. He urged the president to "wake up" from daydreaming and tackle the economic problems facing Taiwan instead.

The United States, too, responded by publicly reminding President Chen that he had in 2000 promised to adhere to the "four no's" -- that is, he would not declare independence, not change the national title of the Republic of China, not push for the inclusion of a description in the constitution that Taiwan and mainland China are separate countries, and not promote a referendum to change the status quo.

Clearly, Washington is as opposed as ever to any attempt by Taiwan to change the status quo. In December 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush publicly rebuked "the leader of Taiwan" because he "may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Chen, in his address, hailed the emergence of a "Taiwan consciousness," which he said was gradually taking root "on this land and thrive in the hearts of our people."

He also made clear his desire to change the national title, saying: "It is grievously saddening that circumstances forbid us from saying out loud consistently the name of our country -- such is indeed a heartbreaking and humiliating predicament."

Chen again warned Taiwan's business community on China, saying: "We should not become reliant on a particular market or a single economic entity. To that end, although we cannot turn a blind eye to China's market, we should not view the China market as the only or the last market."

Beijing did not respond immediately to Chen's speech, but the day before, President Hu Jintao, in his own new year address, again vowed that Beijing would "never compromise on opposing Taiwan's independence secessionist activities."

Chen's stance makes it clear that, in the remaining two years of his term, politics in Taiwan is likely to continue to be vicious and divisive while cross-strait relations remain tense. As a result, relations between Washington and Beijing, too, will continue to be affected by maneuvers made by Chen in his attempt to gain international recognition for Taiwan as a separate state.

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

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