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Taiwan - 2003 Developments

President Chen Shui-bian was honored with the 35th annual International Human Rights Award of the International League for Human Rights (ILHR) at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on 31 October 2003.

On 06 September 2003, a crowd of 150,000 people marched in the streets of Taipei -- the largest demonstration Taipei had ever seen -- to demand that government agencies, companies, and private institutions which use "China" in their names replace it with "Taiwan."

On 19 November 2003, China delivered an unusually harsh message to Taiwan's leaders, warning it will use force if the island pursues independence from the mainland. Wang Zaixi, vice-minister of the Chinese cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, said that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's "extreme" push for independence is running the risk of triggering a war. The remarks were the strongest yet in an ongoing war of words that has been escalating recently as Taiwan's March presidential elections drew closer.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned that China will not accept any move toward independence by Taiwan. In a Friday interview published in Sunday's [23 November 2003] Washington Post newspaper, Mr. Wen said China will, in his words, pay any price to safeguard Chinese unity. The Chinese premier said that by discussing a referendeum on a new constitution, Taiwanese leaders are clearly stepping up efforts to make the breakaway island republic an independent country. He called such discussions a "deliberate provocation."

On 26 November 2003 lawmakers in Taiwan approved a bill allowing the president to call for an independence referendum. The measure, passed after a lengthy debate, is seen as an act of defiance against China. The measure defeated a stronger ruling party initiative that would have given the president wider authority to call referendums. Lawmakers dropped the most controversial part of the legislation -- a clause which explicitly states a referendum can be held on independence or on changing the island's name or flag, which Beijing said may trigger war. Once signed by Taiwan's president, the measure allows the island's leader to call for a referendum on independence in the event that China threatens to invade. But it also gives the legislature power to block most referendums. Taiwanese Prime Minister Yu Shyi-kun said he might try to overturn the new law, complaining it gives too much power to the legislature. China contends the measure passed by Taiwan's parliament could be used as a step toward independence. Beijing's first official reactions came via the state-run media and the government's Taiwan Affairs office, which says China is "gravely concerned" about the new Taiwanese law. The government news service, Xinhua, says the law contains "hidden trouble" for cross-straits relations.

Taiwanese political battles are likely to escalate over the issue of independence, which was a central theme in the run-up to the March presidential elections. Taiwan steadily increased the level and variety of projects that manifest the independence ambitions of the current administration.

The political buzz in Taipei surrounds the idea of the referendum and a new constitution, both pushed by President Chen Shui-bian. Chen has stated his desire for a new Constitution to be in place by 2006, and has suggested that a nationwide referendum on the subject would be an essential exercise of direct democracy. The logic behind the referendum is that in voting for a revised Constitution, the Taiwanese are in effect voting for independence. The current Constitution is the same one carried over to Taiwan by the fleeing KMT in 1950 and recognizes a singular Republic of China.

Chen and others have pushed for international recognition of the name Taiwan through the issuance of a new passport that omits the "Republic of China" designation. To date, there have been few problems with the passport, although Taiwanese traveling and living in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Switzerland have met roadblocks with the name change. The United States, among other powers, has agreed to honor the new passport.

While such name changes earn statements of disapproval from Beijing, public denouncements of the "one-China" policy and aggressive political campaigning in the name of independence garnered unwelcome pressure from Beijing. Many, including some in Washington, find ire in Chen's recent independence overtures considering he previously campaigned against both name changes and a new Constitution. The issue of international recognition was tabled at the United Nations, to no avail, and Liberia switched allegiance by formalizing ties with Beijing in lieu of Taipei, both events serving blows to the sovereignty ambitions of Taiwan, but neither derailing other initiatives already underway. The international community is comfortable with the status quo: a de facto independent Taiwan.

Interestingly, a spokesman from Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Affairs left a small crack in the door when it came to a referendum by saying "We respect the aspiration of Taiwan compatriots to be the masters of their own destiny, but are in firm opposition to any remarks Taiwan authorities aimed to challenge the 'one-China' principle." So, should Chen's Democratic People's Party (DPP) succeed in initiating a Taiwan-wide referendum on Constitutional revision, the Taiwanese people may be able to tell Beijing authorities what Taipei's politicians can not. However, Chen risks his presidency if voters recognize that his and other leaders' continued public flirtation with independence motions may prod Beijing to take military or economic action against the island.

On 05 December 2003 President Chen Shui-bian said that he planned a referendum in March 2004 calling on China to withdraw ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and demanding that China renounce the use of force against the island, and the planned referendum would not involve independence.

On 09 December 2003 President Bush said he opposed any action by Taiwan's leaders to declare their independence from China. Meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in the Oval Office, President Bush said neither country should try to change the nature of the relationship that has separated them since 1949. "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally that change the status quo which we oppose."

On 23 December 2003 Chen said communication between two countries' governments is proceeding and that it takes time to eliminate misgivings or anxiety. "I think the crucial moment in the US-Taiwan relationship is in the next three to five months," he said, adding that he believes the US is more concerned about his inauguration speech on May 20 than the defensive referendum. "From this moment on, if China tries to launch any missile -- as it did in 1996 to threaten the people of Taiwan to affect the presidential election -- I will revoke the `five noes,'" Chen said, which includes a promise not to declare independence.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:35:45 Zulu