Fri, 08 Dec 2000

Beijing's 'one China' dogma haunts Taiwan

By Benjamin Kang Lim

TAIPEI (Reuters): Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is touring a museum when he suddenly beats a quick retreat after seeing a sign reading "China Hall".

The puzzled guide, scratching his head, asks Chen's bodyguard: "Doesn't the president like porcelain?"

This popular pun, which has been circulating on the Internet in recent weeks, highlights Chen's aversion, if not fear, of China as a giant waiting on Taiwan's doorsteps to pounce on the tiny island the minute it declares statehood.

"Chen Shui-bian wants to improve ties with the mainland, but at the same time he is averse to it," said Soochow University political science professor Emile Sheng.

Chen has said he wants to be Taiwan's Richard Nixon, the former U.S. president who opened China's doors in 1972, but critics are uncertain if and how this would happen. Chen has refused to even utter the words "one China" let alone embrace Beijing's cherished dogma -- a key Chinese demand for stalled dialogue to resume.

His top advisory body on relations with the mainland came up with a fresh but ambiguous formulation of "one China" last week in an attempt to allow him to sidestep the vexed issue and accommodate Beijing to break a 17-month impasse.

The formulation, seen by analysts as an attempt by Chen to edge to the center of the political spectrum, was aimed at pleasing everybody but ended up pleasing virtually nobody.

"It's like a cook in the kitchen making a dish that everybody will like. In the end, he serves a bowl of water. It's useless," said Peng Ming-min, a pioneer of Taiwan's pro-independence movement who ran for president on a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket in 1996 and lost.

Chen is eager but cautious to stake out the middle ground -- a move that could boost his popularity but is no guarantee his party, the DPP, would win more than half of the seats up for grabs in parliamentary elections next year.

The downside of it is he would alienate his most ardent supporters, who demand nothing short of independence, if he threw in his lot with the mainstream of Taiwan society who want the status quo -- neither reunification with nor de jure independence from China.

"Chances of the DPP becoming the majority party in the legislature are slim," DPP lawmaker Shen Fu-hsiung told Reuters.

"Hence, moving to the center would be difficult. We have to look after our core supporters," Shen said. "And we have reason to be wary of 'one China'. It's a Chinese trap."

Beijing, indifferent to Taiwan's latest overtures, flatly rejected as "word games" the island's bid to set the stage for reconciliation talks and told Chen not to be optimistic bilateral ties would not worsen in the next year.

Thus far, Beijing has ignored Chen, but has not criticized him by name in an indication it has not given up on him.

Bilateral ties are expected to remain at a stalemate for months, if not throughout his four-year presidency due to end in 2004.

Beijing's suspicions of Chen will remain unchanged and it will continue to monitor his words and deeds.

"Even if Chen Shui-bian accepts 'one China', the mainland won't feel at ease and won't trust him totally from then on," said Fung Hu-hsiang, a deputy in Taiwan's opposition New Party who has close ties to the Chinese leadership in Beijing.

In another example of Taiwan's anxiety, the island's leading carrier, the government-controlled China Airlines, said it had shelved a plan to buy a stake in the cargo unit of China's third largest carrier China Eastern Airlines after politics got in the way.

Taiwan's number two intelligence chief Han Kun said Taiwan has every reason to be vigilant. He warned that about 3,000 Chinese spies infiltrate the island each year -- no arrests have been publicized -- in yet another sign of deep-seated misapprehensions between the rivals.

Beijing's Communist rulers may not be talking to Chen, but they may have found their civil war adversaries, Taiwan's main opposition Nationalist Party, the lesser of two evils.

The Nationalists, cosying-up to the Communists, sent vice chairman Wu Poh-hsiung to the mainland last month for the highest level contact between the two parties since the Communists routed the Nationalists in civil war in 1949.