Political Shift on Taiwan Hurts China’s Unification Push

By Philip P. Pan, Washington Post, Tuesday 19 June 2001; Page A14

BEIJING, June 18—Taiwan’s former president has broken with his own party to support President Chen Shui-bian, dealing a serious blow to China’s dream of fostering a strong pro-unification political bloc on the island.

The Chinese government has tried for months to isolate Chen, who before taking office had advocated Taiwanese independence. It has been courting in particular the opposition Nationalist and People First parties, hoping they will strengthen their grip on Taiwan’s parliament and oust Chen, or force him to adopt more favorable policies toward the mainland.

But that strategy is in trouble now that former president Lee Teng-hui, who led the Nationalist Party for more than decade, has all but confirmed he will abandon the party and throw his support—and that of his many followers—behind Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party during legislative elections in December.

At a meeting of a pro-independence academic group on Saturday, Lee and Chen made their first joint public appearance since Chen took office last year. Lee delivered a speech calling for the birth of a new Taiwan. Then, before a cheering crowd, the two men clasped their hands and raised them over their heads.

Lee has declined to discuss his intentions, but he has endorsed two biographies published in Taiwan this month that make clear his disdain for Nationalist Party chief Lien Chan and People First leader James Soong. Chen wrote the preface for one of the books. In addition, a former cabinet member and Lee loyalist has been quoted telling reporters that several Nationalist lawmakers intend to quit and form a new political party with Lee.

Lee, 78, remains popular among many Taiwan residents, particularly ethnic Taiwanese in the island’s south. His defection could reshape Taiwan’s political landscape, strengthening Chen’s embattled presidency and weakening the Nationalists, who ruled the island for more than 50 years before Chen was elected.

It could also further polarize public opinion in Taiwan over whether the democratic, self-governing island should move toward unification with or greater independence from China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory. Lee and Chen have advocated a go-slow approach to unification talks, while Lien and Soong have urged closer ties with Beijing.

This is the beginning of an active political realignment in Taiwan, and this realignment will create more divergence between mainland factions and Taiwanese factions, said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a research group in Taipei. The process is a dangerous one, because it may induce Beijing to think it’s impossible for them to take Taiwan back peacefully.

If China concludes that its strategy to isolate Chen has failed and sees him gaining strength because of Lee’s support, it may give up on a political solution and focus on its military options to recover the island, Yang said. But he said China will probably wait for the results of the December elections before reevaluating its Taiwan strategy.