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No Relief Seen in Cross-Strait Ties

China was unhappy with Taiwan's President Chen well before the vote. His reelection may embolden him to pursue independence.

March 23, 2004|Tyler Marshall and Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writers

TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chen Shui-bian's political agenda and his disputed victory in Taiwan's presidential elections will further complicate the island's frayed relations with China, political analysts and regional specialists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait said Monday.

Chen's pro-independence instincts and his efforts to distance the island from the mainland politically during his first term have seriously strained relations, the analysts said. Beijing refused to deal with Chen during his first term in an attempt to isolate and discredit him.

"We are already in the red zone," said Beijing University international relations professor Jia Qingguo. "The mainland has no trust in Chen."

The only consolation for Beijing in Saturday's vote was that Chen-inspired national referendums, including a proposal to demand the removal of nearly 500 Chinese ballistic missiles pointed at the island, failed to pass. The mainland government has officially applauded the referendum's defeat, all but ignoring Chen's victory.

Assuming Chen's narrow triumph survives a barrage of legal challenges from opponent Lien Chan, analysts said ties with the mainland will likely get worse.

"After four years of watching him, Beijing knows who Chen Shui-bian is," Jia said. "They have no false expectations. Any additional steps from Taiwan to provoke independence would lead to unthinkable consequences."

Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province that must one day be reunified with the mainland.

The analysts' bleak assessments came as protesters from Taiwan's opposition alliance demonstrated for the third day in front of the presidential offices in Taipei. Chen's office accepted in principle a Lien demand to meet with the president to discuss the crisis, although no date was set.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's High Court named a three-judge panel to investigate opposition allegations of fraud and other irregularities including the circumstances surrounding an election-eve attack that wounded Chen.

Legal experts said it could take several months for the judges to complete their findings, raising the prospects of prolonged political uncertainty. Acting to curtail the crisis, Chen early today proposed amending vote-counting regulations to allow an immediate recount. If the amendment passes the legislature without hold-ups, recounting could begin as early as Thursday, sources familiar with the process said.

The move followed a late-night opposition news conference Monday, in which Lien called for a full recount of all 12.9 million votes by May 20, inauguration day. He said he would accept the results.

His vice presidential running mate, People First Party leader James Soong, warned that failure to complete such a recount by the inauguration would create a crisis of legitimacy for the government.

Amid the post-election turmoil, Taiwan's stock market suffered its worst single-day drop in eight years, losing more than 6% of its value during the exchange's four hours of trading, with companies heavily invested in mainland trade among those hardest hit. Equity markets elsewhere in the region also were dragged down.

Pessimistic assessments on the future of cross-strait relations focused heavily on Chen's pledge to draft a new constitution for the island by 2006, a move they described as nothing less than the de facto creation of an independent Taiwan state.

"That would be the breaking point for [mainland] China," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a think tank in Taipei. "Beijing would then have to act."

Wu Yu-shan, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, a think tank funded by the Taiwanese government, agreed, calling Chen's plan "a ticking bomb."

"A new constitution cannot be for anything but an independent Taiwan," Wu said. "Claims of sovereignty over mainland China would be dropped. Can Beijing accept this?" Few on the mainland believe the answer is yes.

"If he amends the constitution, no matter when he decides to do that, the worst possibility is war," said Jia, the Beijing University professor.

Li Jiachuan, former head of the Taiwan Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, believes the U.S., as Taiwan's lone substantial military ally, will likely restrain Chen from going too far.

"I think it is unlikely that America would risk going to war with China to support Taiwan independence," he said.

Last December, after Chen declared plans to conduct the referendum, the Bush administration warned Chen to avoid aggravating tensions. Chen reportedly toned down the referendum's wording but went ahead with the vote.

A new constitution, political analysts said, would sweep aside the ambiguous, decades-old "one China" formula that has kept the peace by allowing both Taipei and Beijing to claim they are the legitimate heir to all of China and that the two must someday resolve those conflicting claims peacefully.

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