President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) speech on Lunar New Year's Day has become a point of concern for the US, prompting the US State Department to issue a series of statements. However, a closer examination of Chen's words fail to reveal any groundbreaking departure from the status quo -- at least nothing substantive enough to invite the level of surprise that the US government has demonstrated.
The so-called "changes" proposed in Chen's address were at most the removal of some superficial and symbolic mechanisms left over from the days of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule. This is the case with his proposal to abolish the National Unification Council and unification guidelines -- both outdated tokens that exist solely as stumps to prop up the farcical dream that "unification" was the sacred destiny of Taiwan. One cannot help but wonder why these props should be maintained when most of the lead actors don't believe in them anymore -- at least not if they want any say in the future of Taiwan.
The truth of the matter is that the National Unification Council has not been convened once since 1999. It serves absolutely no function and a pan-blue controlled legislature slashed the council's annual budget to the ridiculously low amount of NT$1,000 (US$31). If anyone in Taiwan genuinely wishes for unification then it would have to be members of the pan-blue camp. However, not even they felt that it made sense to provide the council with more than a NT$1,000 bill each year.
The existence of the National Unification Council and unification guidelines is simply a mockery of democratic principles. It should be left to the people of Taiwan to determine the future of the country, and only the Taiwanese people can decide whether there should be unification with China. The existence of the National Unification Council and unification guidelines takes unification as a given, something that is at odds with democratic progress and development.
As for Chen talking about wanting to join the UN using the name "Taiwan" rather than the Republic of China (ROC), this is hardly an earth-shattering revelation either. It is no secret that Taiwan is unlikely to be admitted into the UN, no matter what name it uses. After all, China not only is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, but it also wields strong influence over almost all UN members, most of which hold formal diplomatic relations with it and acknowledge the "one China" principle. In choosing between "ROC" and "Taiwan," it is a toss up as to which is more offensive to China, since the former claims sovereignty over China's territory and the latter conflicts with the "one China" principle. Neither is going to be acceptable, so Taiwan might as well pick one that it prefers and which also happens to faithfully reflect the political reality of an independent sovereignty.
And as for the talk about holding a referendum on a new constitution, Chen has cited this as one of his major political platforms for quite some time now. It comes as no surprise.
As Chen heads toward the end of his second term, the US is worried that he may make a major move toward independence, since he now does not have to worry about re-election. However, popular will still determines the future of Taiwan, not any one man. Chen may not need to worry about re-election, but the ruling Democratic Progressive Party does.