President of Taiwan hardens China line

Posted in China | 02-Jan-06 | Author: Keith Bradsher| Source: International Herald Tribune

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian delivers his New Year speech at the Presidential Palace in Taipei January 1, 2006.
HONG KONG In a televised speech that squelched months of speculation he might soon seek to improve relations with Beijing, President Chen Shui-bian said Sunday that Taiwan needed to increase its weapons purchases and warned against greater economic ties to the mainland.

Chen had said fairly little in the weeks since his Democratic Progressive Party, which seeks greater political independence from the mainland, fared badly in municipal elections on Dec. 3. The Nationalist Party, which favors closer relations with Beijing, did much better in those elections and has been riding a surge in popularity since its then-chairman, Lien Chan, visited the mainland in late spring shortly before his retirement last summer.

But Chen made clear Sunday that those setbacks would not fundamentally alter his policies. In his New Year's speech, he used a series of politically charged phrases that appeal to independence advocates in Taiwan, but will probably offend Beijing, while calling for legislative approval of his plan to buy more weapons from the United States.

Chen was especially emphatic in warning of the risks posed by the rapid modernization of the People's Liberation Army, especially its heavy investments in missiles that can reach Taiwan. "In the face of such imminent and obvious threat, Taiwan must not rest its faith on chance or harbor any illusions," he said in the president's annual New Year's Day address.

Beijing offered no immediate reaction. Wang Daohan, its chief negotiator on Taiwan issues for years, died on Dec. 24 at 90 and political analysts have suggested that his death may make the mainland less likely to soon change policies toward what it considers a "renegade province."

Philip Yang, director of the Taiwan Security Research Center at National Taiwan University, said Chen's speech seemed to be an effort to shore up the backing of hard-line supporters of independence. The Constitution bars a president from a third term; Chen's term expires in 2008 and there are signs that others are challenging what used to be his near-absolute control over the party. "He tried to prove he is still in control," Yang said.

Chen referred as many as 70 times to the island as "Taiwan," instead of its legal name, "the Republic of China." The island's Constitution still states that the government in Taipei is the government of "all China," but Chen has been moving away from that formulation for years.

Lai I-Chung, director of foreign policy at Taiwan Thinktank, a public policy research group in Taipei that is considered close to Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, said that the president's speech Sunday indicated that he had concluded that the party's internal divisions had played more of a role in its defeat in last month's municipal elections than the Nationalist Party's overtures to Beijing.

One common worry in Taiwan involves the growing economic dependence on the mainland and the extent to which China's economy dwarfs Taiwan's. That economy is expanding more than twice as quickly as Taiwan's and is six times larger.

Statisticians in Beijing on Dec. 20 revised upward their estimate of the size of the Chinese economy - by an amount equal to the entire annual output of Taiwan - after an economic census found that small private businesses in service industries, like restaurants, had previously been undercounted on the mainland.

Chen said Sunday that more than two-fifths of all orders placed with Taiwanese companies for manufactured goods were now filled by factories elsewhere; the mainland accounts for 90 percent of those shipments from factories outside Taiwan, he said.

"Although we cannot turn a blind eye to China's market, we should not view the China market as the only or the last market," the president said.

"Globalization is not tantamount to 'China-ization.' While Taiwan would never close itself off to the world, we also shall not lock in our economic lifeline and all our bargaining chips in China."