Rule Out Independence, China Warns New Taiwanese President

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Two days before his inauguration, Taiwan's president-elect Chen Shui-bian plans to decide Thursday how to respond to Beijing's demand that he make an unqualified pledge ruling out independence for the island.

On Wednesday, an official Beijing newspaper warned of war if Chen refuses to affirm that Taiwan is part of China.

The new president's Democratic Progressive Party campaigned on a pro-independence platform, prompting Beijing to warn Taiwanese voters ahead of the March 18 election that a vote for Chen would mean war. He won nonetheless.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post Thursday cites sources in Taipei as saying Chen's advisors were mostly in agreement that he should at best meet China's demands only partially or indirectly in his speech Saturday.

A popular option is for Chen to restate his position that the principle of "One China" is an item on the agenda for bilateral talks - not a precondition for those talks.

He may alternatively make reference to people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as being "one people," rather than talk of honoring the "One China" tenet, the paper reports.

In a hint that he may choose this approach, Chen said Wednesday, "People in Taiwan and mainland China are like brothers and sisters. We're all members of the same family.

"We need to help each other, care for each other so the family can be harmonious. Only a harmonious family can thrive."

One-sixth of Chen's inauguration speech will deal with cross-strait relations. He is expected to offer goodwill gestures, such as details of how both sides can institute direct trade and transport links for the first time in half a century.

But major Chinese newspapers have carried a commentary by the official Xinhua news agency warning that Chen's failure explicitly to recognize "One China" could bring disaster.

"Not acknowledging and accepting the 'one China' principle while only saying some mild words to improve the atmosphere of current cross-strait relations is without meaning," Xinhua said.

"In the end, this can only harm people and harm oneself and lead the Taiwan people to the abyss of disaster."

The state-run China Business Times went further, predicting conflict if Chen failed Saturday to meet Beijing's expectations.

"If Taiwan's new leader refuses in his inaugural speech to recognize the one China principle and even makes a speech that inclines toward Taiwan independence, then relations between the two sides will certainly take a turn. War in the Taiwan Strait will be difficult to avoid."

The Xinhua commentary said some people in Taiwan wanted to involve unnamed "foreign powers" in the issue.

Earlier this week Washington rejected an appeal by Taiwan's vice president-elect, Annette Lu, for American mediation between Taipei and Beijing

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated that position in a briefing Wednesday.

"We have said we are not mediating," he said. "We ... haven't been asked to and we don't really expect to. We don't seek to play that role."

Asked what the administration thought Chen should say in his inauguration speech, Boucher said: "We will leave that to him. We've always support[ed] one China, a peaceful dialogue between the parties across the straits as the best solution. So anything that moves us closer towards a dialogue will be helpful."

Recent reports suggest that China plans to stage its largest military exercises since 1996 in the weeks immediately following Chen's inauguration, and the reports say the war games will include a mock invasion of the island.

An Australian newspaper reported Wednesday that, according to U.S. intelligence data shared with Australia, China was planning to blockade Taiwan's major port, Kaohsiung, later this year in a bid to force Taipei to open talks on reunification.

Meanwhile, many residents of Hong Kong - which returned to Chinese rule three years ago - fear relations between China and Taiwan will deteriorate, according to a new public opinion survey by an organization that has been tracking Hong Kong opinions on returning to China for the past 15 years.

From their experiences of life since 1997, most respondents in the Hong Kong Transition Project's survey felt Taiwan would not benefit from the "one China, two systems" program followed by Hong Kong and another former colony, Macau.

Communist China and nationalist Taiwan split during a civil war 51 years ago. China regards reunification as an inevitable and long overdue step.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow