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Chen Assumes Presidency of Taiwan, Attempts to Ease Beijing's Anxieties


TAIPEI, Taiwan — With mainland China breathing down his neck and his own people looking to him for answers, former independence activist Chen Shui-bian took the oath of office here today as Taiwan's president.

As expected, Chen tiptoed around the explosive issue of cross-strait relations in his highly anticipated inauguration speech. He took care not to provoke a hostile Beijing, reaching out for further dialogue.

"As long as the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title, I will not push for the inclusion of the so-called state-to-state description in the constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regard to the question of independence or unification," Chen said.

The outdoor rally in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in the island's capital, Taipei, emphasized a theme of ethnic harmony. The festivities included Taiwanese pop diva A-Mei singing the national anthem, various musical works featuring traditional folk songs and a new composition called "God Bless Our Land Formosa." The rally attracted thousands of people, but few foreign dignitaries attended.

Chen did not acknowledge the "one China" principle as demanded by the mainland but said the two sides should work together.

The new president emphasized a common cultural heritage with the mainland and praised Taiwan's progress in democracy, saying China created an economic miracle during its reform era but that Taiwan also created a "Democratic miracle."

"It is time for the two sides to cast aside the hostilities left from the old era. We do not need to wait further because now is a new opportunity for the two sides to create an era of reconciliation together," he said.

So much was riding on the speech that the island's 400,000-member military was on a three-day alert. Dignitaries attending the inauguration were given instructions on what to do in case of an air raid. Chen worked hard to give a business-as-usual appearance in the days leading up to the inauguration, attending traditional opera and watching puppet shows.

The inauguration of the 49-year-old Chen marks the first peaceful transfer of power between opposition parties in the history of Taiwan, formerly Formosa. But war remained an imminent threat since Chen's election in March, ending more than five decades of Nationalist Party rule.

The Nationalist military force retreated to Taiwan after its defeat on the mainland by the Communists in 1949. The Chinese leaders consider Taiwan a breakaway province and have indicated that they might use force to gain control over the island.

Outgoing President Lee Teng-hui, 77, was widely credited with fostering Taiwan's vibrant democracy. He also increased tensions with his mainland adversaries by insisting last year that China and Taiwan should deal with each other on a "special state-to-state" basis, implying his island's sovereignty.

Lee was forced out of the Nationalist Party's chairmanship amid angry protests charging him with indirectly contributing to his party's loss in the March election. He picked lackluster candidate Lien Chan to run for president on the Nationalist ticket. Chan split votes with former party member James Soong, who ran as an independent and finished a very close second.

Chen immediately showed signs of pragmatism after being elected. Once an advocate of independence, he downplayed the issue and told Beijing that he's willing to address its "one China" principle as a subject of discussion, though not as a bottom line.

Among the goodwill gestures he extended to China: Taiwan will not hold a referendum on independence, although it is part of his party's platform. And Chen supports closer economic ties with the mainland, including the much-hoped for "three links" that are currently restricted: direct trade, shipping and postal services.

"He won't give them any excuse to use non-peaceful means to solve the cross-strait relationship," said Jaw-ling Joanne Chang, professor with the Institute of European and American Studies at Taiwan's Academia Sinica.

Chen's actions may disappoint some die-hard supporters in the Democratic Progressive Party. But the party has a limited mandate and is trying to move from the fringe to the political mainstream. Winning only 39% of the vote, Chen faces the formidable task of building a coalition government. The Nationalists still dominate the legislature.

The incoming president reached out to the Nationalists by offering them a sizable presence in his Cabinet, handing out important posts such as premier and defense minister to respected members of the old guard.

"They are making a gesture to the 60% of the people who didn't vote for them that the new government is for all the people of Taiwan," said Yung-tai Hung, director of the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University.

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