Is President Chen Shui-bian(
Is Chen the politician who campaigned as a newborn centrist to win the presidency in 2000?
Or deep down is he still the lawyer who defended activists opposed to Chiang Ching-kuo's(
Chen was very pragmatic in the 2000 election.
He first proposed a new middle way during the campaign to allay fears of a conflict with China across the Taiwan Strait.
He then stated in his inaugural pledge his five noes policy to reassure Washington about his intentions.
That policy especially stresses no declaration of independence, no referendum that would change the cross-strait status quo, and no inclusion of former President Lee Teng-hui's(
Chen even extended several olive branches to Beijing in the first half of his presidential term. But he gradually gave up that pragmatism in the second half of his mandate.
Chen's seizure of the chairmanship of the Democratic Progressive Party last year was the first signal of his move toward a tougher ideological stance: the DPP platform obviously contradicts Chen's five noes policy by stating in a 1999 resolution that Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country.
Chen's return to idealism was made clear when he said in the summer last year that there was one country on each side of the strait.
His push for referendums and his promise last month of a new constitution in 2006 confirmed that shift.
Chen indeed perceives himself as a leader with a "strong sense of mission" and a "vision" for his country's future as he said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. Cynics might denounce Chen's idealism as a new form of pragmatism to win next year's presidential election and reach his long-term goals.
First, if the Chen administration is bad at governing, then it should stick to what it does the best: campaigning.
Taiwan is still plagued by a record unemployment rate of 5 percent.
And railway and telecom workers staged major protests last month to oppose the government's privatization policies.
Chen would downplay his weak social record by keeping the initiative and setting the agenda.
Second, Chen is still trailing in opinion surveys behind the joint ticket formed by Chairman Lien Chan (
Chen's provocative rhetoric could trigger an aggressive response from Beijing that would help sway Taiwan's centrist voters.
In reaction to Chen's call for a new constitution, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (
Third, Chen needs a three-fourths majority in the Legislative Yuan for any constitutional change.
He could hardly get such a majority even with the full support of the Taiwan Solidarity Union.
A referendum law would allow Chen to bypass the Legislative Yuan and have the new constitution approved by universal suffrage instead.
And fourth, Chen wants to go down in history.
He wants to be remembered as the father of independence just like his predecessor is considered the father of democracy in Taiwan.
Chen may lose the coming election or may not even achieve his goals during a second term, but at least he would get the credit for having built the momentum for the independence cause.
From a deeper perspective, however, there's hardly any pragmatism in Chen's idealism. First, he does not have Lee's political skills.
Lee managed to have six sets of constitutional amendments enacted during his 12-year tenure as president.
Could Chen do better in that regard against a unified pan-blue camp?
Second, if Chen plans to push for de jure independence, he should realize that he does have the means for such an ambitious goal. Right now, Taiwan does not have the defensive capability to deal with a potential Chinese reaction.
According to a report from the Ministry of National Defense released this month, China is adopting a pre-emptive strategy against Taiwan with an emphasis on shock-and-awe effects.
Taiwan, in contrast, has not yet developed any system of electronic warfare.
Third, any change in the cross-strait status quo worries the US.
When Chen was pragmatic, the Bush administration did not hesitate to say that it would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan.
Now that he's more idealistic, Washington does not make such bold statements any more.
US officials have even been upset about Chen's failure to notify them beforehand of his constitutional project.
Beijing could benefit from that lack of communication between Taipei and Washington.
And fourth, China has just signed a plan with the ASEAN to transform the region into a giant free-trade zone by 2020.
That initiative further marginalizes Taiwan since it won't be part of that zone.
And the development of closer ties with ASEAN members depends on stable cross-strait relations.
Chen needs more pragmatism if he wants to break his country's isolation, gain further support from the international community and reassure his main ally, Washington. Too much idealism could lead him to a dead end.
Trung Latieule is a freelance reporter based in Taipei
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