THURSDAY, MARCH 23, 2006
TAIPEI Each time Lee Wen-chung looks up from his desk in an office tower here next to Taiwan’s legislature, he is reminded that politics is a potentially explosive business for this self- governing island.
There on the opposite wall, Lee, a lawmaker from the governing party and a ranking member of the Legislative Yuan’s national defense committee, has pinned a large-scale map showing Taiwan dwarfed under the southeastern underbelly of mainland China.
Showing the crushing overhang of a giant landmass, 1.3 billion people and a supercharged economy, Lee’s map also pinpoints the clusters of extra missile bases, strike aircraft and warships Beijing is deploying along its side of the Taiwan Strait.
Along the bottom, a multiplying phalanx of miniature missile symbols charts the annual increase in warheads within range of Taiwan. For 2005, the most recent entry, the table records 600 missiles.
“That’s already out of date,” Lee said, tapping the tally with his index finger. “It is now more than 700.”
The Chinese military threat now permeates virtually all politics in Taiwan. Deep disagreements over how to preserve autonomy in the face of this threat are splitting the island’s young and fractious democracy as it looks ahead to the 2008 presidential election.
President Chen Shui-bian appears determined to push ahead with moves that, if realized, would take the island closer to the vision of full independence that he shares with many fellow members of his Democratic Progressive Party.
His opponents are attempting to strike a more conciliatory pose. Under the leadership of its charismatic chairman, Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, advocates confidence-building measures aimed at reassuring Beijing that Taiwan will avoid any move toward formal independence.
Ma has called for multilateral talks among the Beijing authorities, the Taiwan government, Taiwan opposition parties and other governments in an effort to avert hostility.
“Without negotiations, I think the current state across the Taiwan Strait could move from stagnation to confrontation,” Ma said in a speech Monday to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Washington, meanwhile, is increasingly concerned that China’s rapid buildup, and Taiwan’s belligerent response to it, is dangerously threatening the preferred status quo that has endured for more than a half-century.
Late last month, Chen angered China with his decision to effectively dismantle the largely symbolic National Unification Council, along with the guidelines it had drawn up for eventual union with the mainland.
Senior officials in the Chen administration rejected suggestions that this was unnecessarily provocative, explaining that the president simply wanted to draw attention to the Chinese threat and the ongoing diplomatic isolation Beijing imposes on Taiwan.
“It is a strategic act to let the international community know about Taiwan’s situation,” said Joseph Wu Jaushieh, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the Taiwan government agency responsible for policy on ties with China. “If we don’t make any noise, the international community will continue to buy China’s arguments.”
Wu said the move was also intended as a counter to the anti-secession law China passed last year, a measure, some analysts suggest, that Beijing could invoke to justify an attack on Taiwan.
Chen has also signaled his intention to begin a debate on a new constitution as the centerpiece of his remaining two years as president. This is certain to infuriate Beijing, which is concerned that a fresh constitution would provide Taiwan a legal basis for independence, particularly if it redefines the nature of the island’s sovereignty.
Chen’s pro-independence agenda could also lead to more friction with the United States, Taiwan’s most powerful friend and protector. Washington pledges to help defend the island but has also issued warnings to Taiwan against inflaming tensions.
In talks Tuesday with Stephen Young, the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy in Taipei, Chen promised that he would not spring any “so-called surprise” during the rest of his term.
Senior Taiwan government officials insist that moves to draft a new constitution were not part of the cross-strait political battle and that care would be taken to avoid needling Beijing.
“We are going to steer away from the sovereignty aspect in the constitutional debate,” Wu said.
He and other constitutional experts argue that the island’s Constitution, a relic of the period before 1949 when the Nationalists were in power on the mainland, is outdated and needs revision to streamline government and take into account political reality in Taiwan.
In any event, the president has openly conceded that there is virtually no hope that a new constitution could take effect while the opposition holds a majority in the Legislative Yuan.
That being the case, Su Chi, an influential Kuomintang lawmaker, asserts that Chen is pushing the constitutional debate simply to arrest his plunging opinion poll ratings.
“He knows that the constitution will not pass the Legislative Yuan,” Su said.
Ma, the Kuomintang leader, who is also the mayor of Taipei, is widely regarded as the front-runner to succeed Chen in 2008.
A Ma victory would restore the party to power after its first period in opposition since Taiwan became a full democracy in the 1990s. Soon after he became party chairman last year, Ma said he favored eventual unification with China. He has since backed away from this position, instead emphasizing his support for the island’s current political status.
Most political analysts believe that this shift was aimed at bringing the Kuomintang into line with public opinion. Polls show consistently that about 80 percent of Taiwan citizens support the status quo.
For Lee Wen-chung, the most pressing task for the next president will be dealing with the threat from China’s military buildup, recorded in detail on his map.
“Chairman Ma is very likely to become the next president,” he said. “Then, national security issues will be his responsibility. He will need to think seriously about this.”