Chen a master at speaking the unspeakable

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 August, 2002, 12:00am

In the days following President Chen Shui-bian's provocative declaration on August 3 that Taiwan and China are separate countries, there was 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.

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

Apart from the series of provocative remarks by Mr Chen and Mr Lee, the past few weeks have also witnessed moves that can be seen as overtures to the mainland, such as new regulations that ease restrictions on doing business. It appears that the Chen administration has no intention of disrupting the island's important economic relationship with the mainland, now Taiwan's top export market.

Beijing also seems to be moving in the direction of separating economics from politics, with Vice-Premier Qian Qichen saying recently that direct trade and postal and transportation links - dubbed the 'three links' - were economic and not political issues. However, while both sides are paying lip service to separating economics from politics, it is unlikely this will happen soon.

Mr Qian said it was 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 Mr Chen first warned that Taiwan might 'walk down our own road', the government announced that it would lift a ban on direct investment in the mainland and said Chinese citizens working for international companies could, in future, be transferred to work for those companies in Taiwan.

Two days after Mr Chen's first 'own road' speech, the Taiwan government announced that hi-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 organisations affiliated with the Communist Party.

The next day, the government disclosed that Taiwan insurance companies would be allowed to set up branches and subsidiaries on the mainland after legal measures had been drafted, possibly as soon as this month. That same day, Mr 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 Mr Chen saying, this time even more definitively, that Taiwan would 'go its own way'.

And the day after that, the cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council announced measures to facilitate travel between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. It said that 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.

Then, on August 3, President Chen jolted Taiwan, the mainland and the United States by asserting Taiwan and China were separate countries. He did so while addressing via satellite a meeting of the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations in Japan. On the same occasion, former president Mr Lee called for the building up of Taiwan into a new country.

In the wake of war threats from Beijing, Taiwan held out another olive branch a week later by announcing that, from last Monday, it would approve applications from semiconductor companies to start investing in chip manufacturing plants in China.

So during the past month or so, while Mr Chen and Mr Lee were roiling the political waters, the Taiwan government was making overtures to Beijing.

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

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

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