SCMP Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Good start, but Chen should change stance


The "historic" trips to the mainland last week by a few boat loads of residents of Taiwanese-controlled islands were hailed as a breakthrough in cross-strait relations by the Hong Kong media. But they drew a surprisingly mild reaction from their mainland counterparts.
Most close observers of the situation would readily agree that they represent nothing more than a formal sanction of long-ongoing - but previously unlawful - contacts between these islands and the mainland. People have been frequently crossing these waters for many years and, although not allowed under Taiwanese law, the authorities have never really enforced the laws banning direct trade and exchanges between residents of these islands and their mainland counterparts.
Instead, the Taiwan authorities tolerated such mini-exchanges as a stop-gap measure to placate the business sector within Taiwan. That is because, regardless of their political inclinations, Taiwanese businessmen have long recognised the importance of the mainland as not only a source of cheap labour and production bases, but also their future market.
Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui was successful in holding off the pressure to open up direct trade and travel across the Taiwan Strait in the name of national security. But the current President, Chen Shui-bian - being a minority president and seen as an antagonist of Beijing - is desperate to show progress in establishing some kind of relations with the mainland.
So, despite the lack of any positive response from the mainland and without proper preparations, the mini exchange was kicked off with a one-sided journey last week from the Taiwanese islands to the mainland. This is not something that anyone had expected when such an outrightly pro-independence candidate was elected president nine months ago. It must also have come as a big surprise to Mr Lee, who had skilfully manoeuvred to see Mr Chen elected as his successor, in preference to his own party's candidate, the Kuomintang's Lien Chan, with the hope of continuing his policy of avoiding direct links with the mainland.
The election of a pro-independence president in Taiwan has certainly created new problems for cross-strait relations. The refusal of the new regime to accept Taiwan as part of China, a status implied in the very constitution under which the election was conducted, has become the stumbling block to any dialogue between the two sides. And the mainland side refuses to hold talks with the new regime unless Mr Chen changes his stance.
But the deadlock has also led to Beijing's recent proclamation that "the mainland and Taiwan" are both parts of China, a new formulation that gives apparent equal status to Taiwan and the mainland.
These mini exchanges, which the mainland side only reluctantly agreed to, were not seen as progress in Beijing. This is not only because of their small scale but because their very nature is quite different from what the mainland has been pressing for over the past 10 years - namely, full-scale direct trade, travel, post and communication between the two sides.
These small links are hard to see as the forerunner to a fuller version in the near future because of their limited scale and nature. Most important of all, they do not change Mr Chen's stance over "one China" and his insistence that "Taiwan is not part of 'mainland China' ". Without such a change in stance, genuine progress in cross-strait relations is impossible.
At the end of the day, economic pressure alone is unlikely to be enough to change the political stand of the sitting president. And it seems that much more will be needed. The upcoming elections for the Legislative Yuan later this year will be an important referendum on the policies of Mr Chen. If the Democratic Progressive Party - the president's party - cannot achieve a significant increase in the number of seats it holds in the legislature, Mr Chen's term of office will be thrown into chaos and the economy will continue to suffer.
That will put the question of cross-strait relations directly before the people of Taiwan. They can no longer hide from reality. When every factor points to change it is going to be increasingly difficult to maintain the status quo. This presents a danger, but also an opportunity, for cross-strait relations which no one should ignore.
Shiu Sin-Por is executive director of the One Country, Two Systems Research Institute.