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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 08:47 GMT
Turbulent times ahead for Taiwan
By Caroline Gluck
In Taipei

Chen Shui-bian - 3/2/06
President Chen has signalled a harder line towards China
It had not met in six years, and to all intents and purposes, Taiwan's National Unification Council (NUC) existed in name only.

"It doesn't even have enough money to subscribe to a newspaper," said Joseph Wu chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council - the Cabinet-level body responsible for relations with China.

Yet the decision by President Chen Shui-bian to scrap the Council and the National Unification Guidelines it had drawn up has created diplomatic and political shockwaves.

China said the move was fresh evidence of Mr Chen's determination to move Taiwan to formal independence, a step it warned would "only bring disaster to Taiwan society".

Washington sharply reminded Taipei that it did not support moves towards independence and was opposed to any unilateral change in the cross-strait status quo.

Talks role

The National Unification Council was set up in 1990 under former President Lee Teng-hui. It was an attempt to convince the Chinese authorities that Taiwan was committed to reunification, and it helped kick-start landmark talks between the two sides in the early 1990s.

(President Chen) is shifting to a fundamentalist position - it's the only way to salvage his power and influence in his party
Wu Yu-shan

The Council established the National Unification Guidelines - four principles towards the goal of eventual unification.

They included acceptance that the mainland and Taiwan were both Chinese territory and that "helping to bring about national unification should be the common responsibility of all Chinese people".

The fourth guideline acknowledged the disparity in development across the Taiwan Strait ever since the Nationalists fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war in 1949.

"The timing and manner of China's unification should first respect the rights and interests of the people in the Taiwan area, and protect their security and welfare," it read.

While unification was the stated goal, only a minority in today's Taiwan believe that is a desirable option. Regular opinion polls show that the majority of Taiwanese favour the current ambiguous status quo. Only about 15% favour unification or independence.

The National Unification Council never met after President Chen took office in 2000. In opposition, Mr Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party were staunch critics of the body and its acceptance of the "one China" principle.

But in his inauguration speech in May 2000, he pledged "Five no's" - among them, not to declare independence, and not to dissolve the Council and its guidelines - provided China had no intention of using military force against Taiwan, which it still regards as a breakaway province.

Popularity boost

So why has President Chen effectively broken that promise?

"In the past six years, we have abided by the Five no's pledge," said Joseph Wu. "But the goodwill by Taiwan has not been returned by China".

Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council - 2/2/06
Taiwan's leaders say they feel threatened

He noted China's increasing missile build-up targeting Taiwan and its enactment, a year ago, of an anti-secession law, authorising military force against Taiwan if the island moved towards declaring formal independence.

"We need to use all kinds of occasions to remind the international community that it's China that's trying to change the status quo unilaterally," he said.

Others believe the president's suggestion is part of efforts to boost his sliding popularity, especially among hard-core pro-independence supporters.

Many believe it is a continuation of a more hardline approach towards China.

Opposition KMT legislator Su Chi, a former member of the National Unification Council, believes the body has played an important role.

"If you remove it, it will leave the impression that the government here wants to change the structure. The National Unification Council has helped just by its very existence. It's been an important symbol."

He and other opposition politicians have also been sharply critical of the administration's lack of consultation with Washington on the issue.

Turbulent times

Professor Wu Yu-shan, director of the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, believes whatever the outcome, President Chen will continue to propose other policies seen as hardline towards China.

This may be to boost his flagging support, secure himself a legacy as a leader who tried to advance the pro-independence cause, and strengthen his position within the party when he steps down in 2008.

"He's shifting to a fundamentalist position. It's the only way to salvage his power and influence in his party. He's showing he is not a lame duck president, and [is] taking an offensive position," Professor Wu said.

It is a policy that appears to be working. His popularity ratings - which in December had sunk to a historical low of around 10% after the party's disastrous showing in local elections - are now back in the low 20s.

But by calculating on the need to focus boosting his credibility and support at home, rather than smoothing relations abroad, the next two years could be a turbulent period for Taiwan.

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