Sincere flip-flopping in Taiwan?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 12:00am

On November 10, exactly one month after his 'double 10' speech, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian spoke again. This time before a meeting of his cabinet's security council. He called for promoting cross-strait dialogue in the interest of regional peace and economic development.

Is this just another political ruse or is Mr Chen seriously presenting an olive branch to Beijing?

The State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office labelled Mr Chen as 'insincere'. Are they fully aware of local Taiwan undercurrents possibly opening a window to change Mr Chen's position? Calm listening is now needed.

Mr Chen called for 'seeking long term peace and development', describing the last three years of his term as a 'crucial opportunity that both sides should grasp' to 'achieve long-term positive development and people's livelihood', words which sound more like Beijing than Taipei.

Mr Chen rose to power four years ago on a pro-independence agenda, winning re-election this year by a thin margin. Playing to often extreme emotional currents is a mainstay of Taiwan's politics. With three years left, Mr Chen may be thinking twice about how history will remember him.

Labelled an independence ideologue, he may be a political pragmatist whose survival depends on changing agendas with opportunity. By profession he is a lawyer. Everybody knows how lawyers think.

As a pragmatist, he differs from predecessor Lee Teng-hui, who remains an independence ideologue. Mr Lee identifies himself more as Japanese than Chinese.

Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party no longer faces challenges of gaining power, but retaining it. This requires a delicate drift from a radical pro-independence line. To consolidate power the DPP requires a new mainstream agenda to address pro-unification business interests. On October 10, Mr Chen suggested resuming cross-strait dialogue based on principles jointly agreed in Hong Kong in 1992. Beijing initially dismissed this as insincere - with reason - because Mr Chen's speech contained contradictory elements which sent confused signals.

One month later, Mr Chen added definition to his hints. While falling short of clearly recognising the one-China policy requisite to Beijing for initiating dialogue, he has alluded (within the context of Taiwanese political pressures) a shift from his previous position. Mr Chen has even put some cards on the table. 'Taiwan completely recognises the principles of China's one-China policy position but we call for the other side of the strait to recognise the Republic of China existing as a reality.'

But what does Mr Chen mean by recognising the 'reality' of the Republic of China? Beijing should seek clarification before responding.

Suggest adding the words 'historic reality'. The Kuomintang, which set up the Republic of China in 1911, recognised one China and never differed with the Communist Party on the issue. Can Mr Chen, a former independence radical, now push for unity? Sound unlikely? Remember ardent anti-communist Richard Nixon visited Mao Zedong , ending decades of embargo and initiating the normalisation of Sino-US relations.

So will Mr Chen be the one to initiate dialogue with Beijing? Brokering unification remains sensitive in Taiwan. If this is his intention, he must manoeuvre many local factional interests in Taiwan. He also needs to build credibility with Beijing, which does not trust him.

So recognising one China may need several rounds of evasive language before this key can unlock the door to restart dialogue. From Beijing's view such flip-flopping may sound insincere. But given Taiwan's nasty local politics, maybe Mr Chen's reputation for about-facing is exactly what is needed.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing