Taiwan flirts with independence

War of words: China's warning shots bring breakaway to fore in election countdown


In 1964, a brilliant Taiwanese legal scholar and his students produced a Manifesto to Save Taiwan. At the time, it was heresy. It called for an affirmation that Taiwan's return to the mainland was "absolutely impossible", a new constitution to guarantee democracy, and a seat at the United Nations as a new sovereign state.

The law professor in question, Peng Ming-min, was arrested, jailed for 14 months, placed under house arrest for life but managed to escape to Europe. It was not until November 1992, after 23 years in exile, mostly in the US, that Dr Peng was able to return to Taiwan. Now he is one of four candidates in Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections on 23 March.

Thus has Taiwan's political landscape changed. It is less than nine years since martial law was lifted, and only four years since anyone advocating independence was committing a crime.

But, thanks to Peking's present belligerent notion of safeguarding Chinese sovereignty, the question of independence has become the defining issue of the elections.

Yesterday, as the news spread of China's fourth missile test firing into the sea near Taiwan and more naval and aircraft manoeuvres, Dr Peng spelled out his vision of an independent Taiwan in which the island would formally abandon the "One China" policy. "I say Taiwan has not been, and should not be a part of China. And so-called reunification should not be a national goal," he said.

"I am not one to change our status. Taiwan has been a sovereign nation since 1949. So I just point out this fact to China, to the world. This is the reality," he said. Peking's present military manoeuvres were nothing less than "terrorism" and "barbarism", he added.

Dr Peng is the only candidate explicitly espousing independence, and even he says Taiwan's existing "de facto" independence would only be accompanied by a declaration of "de jure" independence in the case of an invasion by China.

Such distinctions are of no interest to Peking, which describes Dr Peng as an "agent" of President Lee Teng-hui, the man expected to win next week's election. Dr Peng's campaign, thunders Peking, is just an "escort" to take Mr Lee into office.

Mr Lee, as the candidate of the ruling Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, has been at pains to point out that Peking has misconstrued his position. Reunification remained the "ultimate goal", he said, but not while a communist government remains in power in Peking.

In the meantime, Mr Lee intends to raise further Taiwan's international political recognition. A UN seat for Taiwan has been a campaign of the president's for the past two years.

From Peking's point of view, Mr Lee's platform amounts to a "de facto" bid for independence. Its demonisation of him outdoes the abuse which was thrown at Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who retreated to Taiwan at the time of the Communist victory in 1949.

Both Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek subscribed to the ideal of One China; they just disagreed on who should run it. Indeed, when Mr Chiang died in 1986, the mainland expressed "deep condolences" and applauded him for opposing the independence of Taiwan. Mr Lee and Dr Peng represent something much worse.

Voter tactics may be crucial in determining Mr Lee's final share of the vote. He has said he wants a mandate of 50 per cent, a difficult threshold to meet.

However, many analysts believe supporters of Dr Peng, who has little hope of winning, may vote for Mr Lee to give him a healthier margin over the third candidate, Lin Yang-kang.

Mr Lin is a former stalwart of the KMT who was expelled from the party last year. His position is firmly to back a policy of reunification with China, but to leave it rather vague as to when he believes this might be able to take place, and to avoid issues such as UN membership.

In mounting its aggressive military intimidation campaign, it is presumably Mr Lin's share of the vote that Peking is seeking to increase. The fourth candidate, Chen Li-an, who manages to combine being a devout Buddhist and a former defence minister, has not focused on the One China question.

Voter preferences are hard to determine. A big majority probably agrees with Dr Peng's view that de facto independence has become "a historical reality". As Dr Peng added: "Taiwan has undergone a different history. And Taiwanese society and Chinese society are quite different . . . our culture, our mentality, our way of life. These are the facts."

But for voters it is a choice of how big a gamble should Taiwan take about Peking's tolerance. In a view much-heard in Taipei, one 35-year- old clerk said: "One Taiwan, One China is the best situation. But President Lee is moving too fast."