SCMP Thursday, May 18, 2000

High stakes

MIKE CLENDENIN


Sleep is not coming easy to Antonio Chiang these days. As the lead writer for the inauguration speech of Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's incoming president, he is painfully aware that China will be scrutinising every syllable that Mr Chen utters during his swearing in on Saturday.

Sitting in his downtown Taipei office, feet resting on his desk, the long-time opposition movement insider doodles on a pad, sighing and smiling as he plays with words and phrases that might find their way into the historical record. Understandably reticent to talk in-depth about what will come, he only concedes that among his many tasks he must find "new language to say old things". In other words, don't expect much, he says. "It's about ideas and concepts. We don't need to go into detail."

The anticipation of this speech is immense, however, shown just two days ago when Taiwanese legislator Feng Hu-hsiang claimed he had obtained a leaked portion of the speech which asserted that "Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent country". Mr Chen's aides quickly denied this and Mr Chiang, later that same day, stressed again that "the speech will never say Taiwan is a sovereign country . . . We are very careful about this."

The China policy part of Mr Chen's speech will be the culmination of his recent efforts to allay concern over his pro-independence roots. Both before and after his victory, Mr Chen has offered numerous concessions to Beijing, the most notable of which came just two weeks ago, when he dropped the outgoing government's controversial "state to state" theory, a policy that stirred up threats of war because it sought parity between the two governments. Other concessions have included promises not to hold a referendum on Taiwan independence, or change the island's name from its current name of Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan.

Together, these promises have fuelled allegations that Mr Chen is giving too much away to Beijing even before he assumes office. But long-time observers of Strait machinations believe Mr Chen hasn't really given anything away. And that there is little substance behind such promises. "Beijing is waiting to see if he takes some real action to satisfy 'one China'. If it is just lip service, then it is useless," says Bau Tzong-ho, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.

But Beijing is weary of Taiwan's efforts to play for time. Upping the ante as his speech approaches, the Communist Party, through a recent People's Daily editorial, told Mr Chen to stop playing "word games" and acquiesce to its version of "one China". With Mr Chen's election, Beijing has focused attention on its "sacred mission" to reunite with Taiwan, a battle that also helps deflect attention from its numerous domestic problems. But the solution used for Hong Kong and Macau has been rejected. "Taiwan people are against one country, two systems," says Lin Yi-hsiung, chairman of Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). "And those are the people who voted for us, so we will never go against them."

By using democracy as a way to legitimise its bottom line, the DPP finds it easier to resist Beijing while at the same time evoking sympathy from the West. To buttress this position, Mr Chen is also throwing up other barriers that belie his efforts at appearing moderate. A key bellwether is the high-level appointment of Tsai Ying-wen to the chairmanship of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's official negotiating body in cross-Strait affairs. Ms Tsai, like Mr Chiang the speechwriter, is a notable Taiwan nationalist as well as a key architect of "state to state". To Beijing, Mr Chen represents the thin end of the wedge.

To remind Taiwan of its ultimate deterrent against a declaration of independence, the Chinese Government will stage military exercises off the south coast in the weeks immediately following Mr Chen's inauguration, according to Taiwan's military. They will be the largest since the cross-Strait missile crisis of 1996 and will involve a mock invasion of Taiwan, the military says. But some insist this merely amounts to more chest-beating.

"Beijing has realised that it is not yet time for the two sides of the Strait to come to a showdown," says Pan Hsi-tang, a political scientist. "China may opt to launch propaganda warfare and military intimidation against Taiwan sometime after Taiwan's May 20 presidential inauguration, but there will be no military confrontation between the two sides."

One major deterrent to more aggressive action by the mainland is the economic link between the two places. More than 40,000 Taiwanese businesses are estimated to employ at least five million people on the mainland via US$44 billion (about HK$342.7 billion) in investment. The sons of President Jiang Zemin and a prominent Taiwan businessman are planning a multi-billion dollar hi-tech joint venture in Shanghai. These economic ties are a key line of defence for Taiwan, perhaps more important than the US-supplied Patriot missile batteries in the hills surrounding Taipei.