(CNSNews.com) - Taiwan's president has scrapped a committee set up 16 years ago to work towards the island nation's eventual reunification with the communist mainland. Chinese media predicted the move, effective on Tuesday, would "fuel tensions" across the Taiwan Strait.
The U.S. State Department played down Chen Shiu-bian's decision to shut down the National Unification Council (NUC) and abandon its "guidelines" for unification, with spokesman Adam Ereli suggesting they had merely been frozen, not abolished.
When Chen first floated the plan in a speech late last month, Washington was critical, saying it opposed any step by either side to alter the "status quo" in the Taiwan Strait.
But despite U.S. efforts since then to dissuade Chen -- including a reported visit by a national security council envoy -- the president said he was going ahead with the move.
On Monday Chen denied that the NUC's "ceasing its function" changed the status quo, saying he was not opposed to any option for the development of ties with the mainland, as long as it was based on the will of the Taiwanese people.
But China sees it differently. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Li Jiaquan said that by abandoning the NUC and its guidelines -- a three-stage process aimed at building a "new and unified China" -- Chen was excluding the option of unification.
Beijing on Monday warned Chen not to go ahead, saying his "secessionist activities" would cause a serious crisis and "sabotage peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."
Although the NUC has not met once since Chen was elected president in 2000, its continued existence had been reassuring for those Taiwanese who hope the island will someday merge with the mainland.
Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949 when China's Nationalist (KMT) government and supporters fled to the island after losing a civil war to Mao Tse-tung's Communists.
China wants Taiwan, which has since then become a thriving, self-governing democracy of 22 million people, to return and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve that goal.
The KMT's policy goal remains the eventual reunification with China but Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which ended half a century of KMT rule in 2000, cautiously leans towards independence.
The even more outspoken Taiwan Solidarity Union advocates openly for an independent state, and the island has witnessed the emergence of a strengthening movement to assert a "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese" identity, and to formalize Taiwan's de-facto independence.
The U.S. is committed under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself from unprovoked aggression, and Taiwan has strong supporters in the U.S. Congress.
At the same time, Washington's policy on the Taiwan Strait is that it "does not support" independence for Taiwan, and that neither party should take unilateral moves to change the shaky status quo and endanger stability.
Set up under former President Lee Teng-hui of the KMT in September 1990, the National Unification Council aimed to bring together various political parties and private sector figures to study ways to speed up the process of reunification with the mainland. The DPP rejected it from the outset.
The 32-member body's guidelines, now-abandoned, for moving towards that point envisaged a short-term phase involving exchanges across the Strait; a medium-term stage of building trust and cooperation; and a long-term program of consultation leading to reunification.
Ironically, former president Lee is now regarded as the spiritual leader of the Taiwan Solidarity Union, and is reviled by Beijing, together with Chen, for his pro-independence stance.
The KMT and other opposition parties condemned Chen's decision to scrap the council, accusing him of breaking his word on the matter.
This was a reference to a pledge made by Chen at his first-term inauguration in 2000.
He said then that, provided China had no intention of attacking Taiwan, he would not declare independence; not change the island's official title; not change the constitution to describe cross-Strait ties as "state-to-state;" and not promote a referendum on changing the status quo. He would also not scrap the NUC or its guidelines.
Chen's supporters argue that his move this week does not break the pledge, because it was conditional on an absence of aggression from China.
Taiwan News said in an earlier editorial that Beijing had "unilaterally transgressed" that condition.
It cited the rapid expansion and modernization of China's armed forces; the deployment of advanced fighter aircraft and ships across from Taiwan; its positioning of more than 780 tactical ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan; and the passage last year of an "anti-secession" law authorizing war if the island formally declared statehood.
The editorial said those steps by China themselves constituted a change to the status quo across the Strait, yet it was only Taiwan's moves that drew criticism.
In Beijing, the state-run China Daily said in an opinion piece that Chen was resorting to "desperate steps" in a bid to avoid becoming a lame duck president in the last two years of his second and final term.
It recalled that the anti-secession law stipulated that "Taiwan is part of China" and the Chinese government would "never allow" Taiwan to secede.
"The law reflects the will of all Chinese, who will never tolerate any move to change the status quo that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one and the same China," the paper declared.
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