Chen Says 'Sovereign' Taiwan Will Press Ahead with New Constitution

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Taiwan's re-elected president has started his second four-year term by reaffirming his plans to draw up a new constitution, and restating his view that the island is an independent nation, separate from China.

In his first broadcast interview since the March 20 election, President Chen Shui-bian told the BBC that Taiwan was an "independent sovereign country."

He also said he would press ahead with plans to rewrite the Taiwanese constitution by 2008, but denied that the constitutional reform process was in itself "a timetable for independence."

"This new constitution will have no bearing on the issue of unification [with China] or independence, nor will it change the status quo."

Instead, he said, it was needed to modernize political institutions, lower the voting age to 18, enshrine basic rights, and replace conscription with voluntary military service.

Chen said he wanted to put a new constitution to a referendum.

Chen was re-elected by a margin of just 0.2 percent, and the result has been contested by his opponent, Nationalist (KMT) leader Lien Chan.

A recount is expected to take place soon, but Chen appears confident that he will not lose, and has been laying out his vision for the next four years.

He told senior members of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that his initial focus would be on unifying Taiwan, fostering calm ties across the Taiwan Strait, and building a stable society and a prosperous economy, the presidential office said.

The island of 23 million is a de facto sovereign nation, boasting its own economy, political institutions, armed forces and other trappings of state.

But the communist mainland considers Taiwan a renegade province whose return - by force if necessary - is inevitable.

It has raised the possibility of unification occurring by means of the same "one country, two systems" formula that governed Hong Kong's return to China in 1997.

Beijing opposes both Chen's constitutional reform plans and a law passed late last year to allow referendums in Taiwan, seeing both as steps closer to an eventual formal declaration of independence.

The official U.S. stance is that it opposes any unilateral steps that change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. exchanged diplomatic relations with Taiwan for China in 1978, but it maintains ties with Taipei through quasi-official agencies.

It is also bound under the Taiwan Relations Act to help the island to defend itself, and Taiwan has many allies in the U.S. Congress.

When Chen came into office four years ago, he said in his inaugural address that as long as China "has no intention to use military force against Taiwan," he would not formally declare independence, not change the name of Taiwan's government, not change the constitution to describe cross-Strait ties as "state-to-state," and not promote a referendum to change the status quo with regard to independence or unification.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a press briefing Tuesday that the U.S. still took those pledges from 2000 "very seriously."

Following passage of the referendum law, Taiwan held its first-ever referendum on March 20, alongside the presidential election.

Voters were asked whether Taiwan should obtain advanced anti-missile systems if China refused to withdraw some 500 missiles pointed towards the island, and whether Taipei should negotiate with Beijing over a framework for future talks.

China strongly opposed the plan, and several other countries - including the U.S. - also expressed various levels of concern, but the referendum went ahead.

In the end, the two-question referendum failed to reach the required threshold of 50 percent of registered voters to pass.

Chen attributed the failure to Chinese threats and intimidation, sabotage by his political opponents, and the voting procedure.

Meanwhile, Taiwan lost a diplomatic ally Tuesday when the Dominican Republic switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

In the latest round of what has come to be known in the region as "dollar diplomacy," the Caribbean nation said China had promised around $117 million in aid over the next five years.

The defection leaves Taiwan with just 26 diplomatic allies, all of which are developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

China refuses to have ties with any country that recognizes Taiwan, and works actively to deny the island nation any standing in the international community.

That the Dominican Republic's decision was announced at a sensitive time in Taiwan's domestic politics was not especially surprising. China established ties with Macedonia in 2001 while Chen was on a rare visit abroad, and with Nauru the following year on the day Chen was inaugurated as DPP chairman.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow