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28-02-06, 14:55
The New York Times

February 28, 2006

China Expresses Disapproval for Taiwan Independence Signals


BEIJING, Feb. 28 — China reacted sharply today to the decision by President Chen Shui-Bian of Taiwan to terminate the island's unification council, a move that analysts say has shaken confidence in Beijing that pressure from Washington or Mr. Chen's electoral setbacks will be sufficient to check his drive for formal independence.

Mr. Chen today formally scrapped the National Unification Council and guidelines for unification with mainland China. Though largely moribund, the council and the guidelines were symbols of Taiwan's political links to Beijing that Mr. Chen had once vowed to preserve.

Beijing responded by declaring that the step threatened stability in the Taiwan Strait and the Asian region. Preventing Mr. Chen from using "constitutional engineering" to achieve legal independence for Taiwan has become "the most important and most urgent task" facing the mainland today, China's Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement.

Joseph Wu, the chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the Taiwanese government agency that handles relations with Beijing, rejected the mainland's objections today, repeating Mr. Chen's position that Taiwan was only trying to preserve a balance in its relations across the Taiwan Strait even as China builds up its military forces facing the island.

"The criticism by China is groundless," he said. "What we are doing has nothing to do with changing the status quo."

Mr. Chen's persistence in pursuing narrow but politically potent goals aligned with Taiwan's independence movement has undermined hopes in Beijing that the Taiwan president had been stymied by the upset victory of the opposition Nationalist Party in local elections last year. Many Chinese experts also expected that the Bush administration would do more to prevent Mr. Chen from trying to legalize Taiwan's de facto independent status.

"The reality is that even under heavy American pressure, Chen Shui-Bian is determined to provoke a big response from China," said Huang Jiashu, a Taiwan expert at People's University in Beijing.

"He pushes through this measure today and something else tomorrow," Mr. Huang said, adding, "You cannot rule out a confrontation before 2008," when Mr. Chen's second and final term ends.

Mr. Chen still faces an uphill struggle to achieve formal independence for Taiwan, the main goal of his core political constituency. His popularity ratings have sunk into the 20's in some recent polls. The Taiwan legislature, which would have to approve changes to the island's Constitution, is controlled by the opposition Nationalists, who favor more cordial ties to the mainland.

Moreover, the United States, Taiwan's only major military and political partner, has tried to check creeping moves toward independence there. Washington needs China's help in managing pressing problems such as the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran and seems determined to prevent Taiwan from undermining diplomatic ties to Beijing.

Even so, the scrapping of the unification council, which Mr. Chen first signaled in late January, was widely viewed in Beijing as a test of how successfully the United States could constrain Mr. Chen. The result is viewed as mixed.

After a concerted diplomatic push by the Bush administration, Mr. Chen modified the wording of his order, saying the council would "cease to function" rather than be abolished, as he said he would do in late January. He also reiterated his pledge to maintain the status quo in cross-Strait relations.

The pledge and the wording change appeared to reassure Washington. The State Department issued a statement Monday that took note of Mr. Chen's decision not to formally abolish the council, suggesting that Washington considered that a significant concession.

But Beijing viewed the sequence of events as ominous, arguing that Mr. Chen effectively prevailed over Washington's objections.

"Although he did not use the term "abolish" and changed the term to "cease function," this is merely a word game," the Taiwan Affairs Office said. "Basically he is tricking the Taiwan people and international opinion."

Yan Xuetong, an international relations expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that Mr. Chen had shown that he can manage American pressure. Though Mr. Chen violated his pledge to the United States to leave the unification council in place, he ended up winning tacit American support for his effort to terminate the body, Mr. Yan said.

"It has been my view for sometime that although the United States does not support Taiwan independence, it does not have the determination to prevent Chen Shui-Bian from achieving de jure independence through tricks of this sort," Mr. Yan said.

He added that the burden of preventing Taiwanese independence must fall on Beijing more than the United States. The risk of military conflict remains relatively high as long as Mr. Chen controls Taiwan's government, he said.

Mr. Huang of People's University was more sanguine about the preventing an escalation of tensions. He said that although Mr. Chen persisted with his latest move, the United States had been proactive in opposing the measure from the start, forcing at least a nominal concession from Mr. Chen and making clear that additional moves would jeopardize Taiwan's already strained ties with the Bush administration.

But he said China would likely look for President Bush to make a fresh commitment to oppose Taiwanese independence, perhaps during Chinese President Hu Jintao's planned visit to Washington in April. In late 2003, Mr. Bush strongly opposed moves by Mr. Chen to solidify Taiwan's independent status during a visit to Washington by China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

"The United States need to make clear that it understands what Mr. Chen is doing and will not allow him to get away with it," said Mr. Huang. "It's obvious that the line needs to be drawn again."

In contrast, some Taiwanese lawmakers said Mr. Chen's move was vital to preserving a balance in cross-Strait relations, which have become dominated by mainland China.

Hsiao Bi-khim, an influential lawmaker from President Chen's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said that Mr. Chen had been increasingly worried that China had been trying to gain the upper hand and reshape cross-straits relations.

"He feels that you need to do something drastic to pull things back into balance," she said, adding that she did not expect any further initiatives on sovereignty issues now that President Chen has disposed of the unification council and guidelines.

Ms. Hsiao cited Beijing's increasing cooperation with opposition parties here, which has included visits to the mainland last spring by the chairmen of the two main parties favoring an eventual political unification with the mainland, the Nationalist Party and the People First Party.

Ma Ying-jeou, the popular mayor of Taipei and chairman of the Nationalist Party, called for eventual political unification with the mainland using language that bore strong similarities to the National Unification Guidelines, a move that also made President Chen more eager to get rid of the guidelines.

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company