The irony, not to mention cynical politics, that surrounds the visits to China by Taiwan's two opposition leaders is inescapable.
The irony first. One after the other, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) paraded through China like provincial governors of old, visiting historic sites and ancestral homes before arriving in Beijing where they performed symbolic kowtows before the Dragon Throne, this time bearing the trappings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Chinese, who are masters of political and diplomatic charm, having taken in sophisticates such as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former US president Bill Clinton, went all out to seduce Lien and Soong. They were feted and applauded at every turn, Lien telling reporters that "we have been warmly received by the central committee of the Communist Party."
The Chinese even offered Lien two pandas to take home.
While the press in China acclaimed the visits as a "historic moment bringing springtime" and polls in Taiwan were generally favorable, not everyone in Taipei was happy.
Protesters asserted that Lien and Soong were traitors who had sold out to Beijing. Chen accused Soong of breaking an agreement calling for self-determination for Taiwan. Chen, seeking a counterstrategy, invited Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to visit Taiwan "to see for himself whether Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country and what our 23 million people have in mind." The Chinese rejected the offer.
Given the history of the KMT and the CCP, the KMT's about-face was startling. Under former president Chiang Kai-shek (
In 1949, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) drove Chiang and the KMT from the mainland to Taiwan. Chiang imposed a harsh dictatorship in which consorting with the CCP was punishable by death. The KMT claimed to be the legitimate government and Chiang's mantra was "reclaim the mainland."
The KMT's rule eased under Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and even more under Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). At the same time, an independence movement took hold among the Taiwanese, which provided support to the KMT's opponents, notably Chen. He beat Lien twice to wrest the presidency from the KMT.
Another irony. The KMT has blocked the purchase of arms and military equipment from the US for four years despite the US undertaking to warn China against invading Taiwan.
Although former US president Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic relations to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, the US continued a strong commitment to the nation's security under the Taiwan Relations Act. The failure to follow through on the arms sale has caused Americans, including in Congress, to question Taiwan's zeal for providing for its own defense.
Now the cynical politics. Lien and Soong have played a "China card" in a blatant attempt to undermine Chen's authority and political standing.
The KMT, having played the spoiler on several domestic issues since Chen took office in 2000, is clearly looking forward to winning back the presidency in 2008 when Chen's term expires.
This maneuver, however, may not provide the KMT with the political lift it seeks. The Chinese have said that Chen must amend certain provisions of the nation's Constitution and accept their version of the "one China" policy before they will negotiate, a demand that Taiwanese voters may contend is interference.