President Chen Shui-bian's (
Washington has reminded Chen of his pledges several times in the six years since the beginning of his first term as Taiwan's president. But the latest debacle regarding the National Unification Council (NUC) and the National Unification Guidelines brought up Chen's pledges in the most direct manner yet.
The US State Department displayed a sense of urgency that was not commensurate with the situation. For one thing, after six years, Chen's original vow is now synonymous with Chen's promise to avoid any democratic process leading to formal sovereignty. What has been papered over is whether or not Chen has the authority to make those promises in the first place.
The five parts of the pledge include no declaration of formal independence, no name change for the nation, no push for the inclusion of the so-called "state-to-state" description of cross-strait affairs in the Constitution, no promotion of referendums on the issue of independence or unification and not causing problems by abolishing the NUC or the guidelines for national unification.
Clearly, neither a declaration of formal independence nor a name change for the nation falls within the realm of powers that the Taiwanese people have bestowed on their president. The president might be called upon to make statements on those subjects, but he or she doesn't have the power to make any assurances on blocking such proposals.
To promise personally not to push for the inclusion of the so-called "state-to-state" description in the Constitution and not promote a referendum on the issue of independence or unification is within Chen's ordinary rights -- as would be the case with any Taiwanese citizen. But these promises can't be imposed on others in his administration.
Instead, should the realization of those two items be deemed vital to national security, Chen would be shirking his obligation by opposing them.
The NUC was a defunct institution originally created through executive order by the Chinese Nationalist Party during the party-state era. The National Unification Guidelines were based on the premise that Taiwan would eventually be united with China, a notion harking back to Taiwan's undemocratic past.
To keep either of those two relics, Chen needs a mandate that can only be derived from a referendum on whether or not people of Taiwan prefer "unification" as the only option for Taiwan's eventual status. Therefore, their "ceasing to function or apply" as declared a few weeks ago by Chen was no more than an admission that his government doesn't have the authority to keep them alive.
Viewed from another angle, Chen's pledge is part of the evolution in the platform for dialogue between Washington and Taipei.
Prior to former president Lee Teng-hui's (
That all changed in 1996 when Lee became the first popularly elected president in Taiwan's history. The US State Department experienced for the first time in Taiwan the difficulty of criticizing a democratically elected head of state for promoting democracy. In 2000, Chen, elected with less than a plurality, had to acquiesce to US demands by putting anti-democratic shackles on himself, in the form of the "four noes and one not" pledge.