Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Burying the Hatchet

President Chen Shui-bian reaches out to a longtime rival
By George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, March 7, 2005

They battled each other for more than two decades. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian launched his political career as a defense lawyer for critics of an authoritarian regime that counted James Soong as its brightest rising star. But last week Soong, the mainland-born head of a small opposition party, stood beside Chen to unveil a common set of principles to guide Taiwan's troubled relations with Beijing. The duo even exchanged gifts: Chen gave his guest a calligraphy scroll with the Chinese characters for sincerity (a virtue Chen's critics say he lacks), while Soong reciprocated with a lapis snail—telling observers it represented democracy "inching toward a beautiful garden."

In inching closer together themselves, the two men are trying to end five years of increasingly partisan turmoil in Taiwan. They affirmed Taiwan's need for a strong defense and vowed to work together toward peace with Beijing. For his part, Chen restated pledges not to formally declare the island's independence or change its name—two redline issues that could provoke war with China. Soong's primary contribution may have been showing up—and thereby salving wounds from last year's bitterly divisive presidential contest. "For months he's said Chen's election was illegitimate," says Bruce Jacobs, professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University in Melbourne. "Now he's come around and said we'll deal with this guy."

Both men are looking to reinvent themselves. Chen, despite his reputation as a thorn in Beijing's side, is hoping to stabilize cross-strait relations before his second four-year term ends in 2008. Soong, whose Kuomintang (KMT) splinter group suffered a crushing defeat in December legislative elections, desperately wants to stay relevant. His party favors reunification with the mainland. By forging a consensus China policy with Chen, Soong could help the president show Beijing a friendlier face. The unlikely alliance could also push through two items on Chen's wish list: a multibillion-dollar U.S. arms package that the opposition has held up in the legislature, and regular cross-strait cargo flights.

Cynics see nothing new in the joint statement and doubt China will embrace Taiwan's odd couple. "Their distrust of President Chen is so deep that having Soong onboard is not going to help," says Su Chi, a KMT strategist who once ran Taiwan's cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council. But Chen insists he's making a genuine overture, and he's caught fire from his own left flank to prove it.

Soong could become an important envoy. He will reportedly visit China in the coming months—representing his political party—and would make a "good guy to send a message," says a senior adviser to President Chen. Of course, there's no guarantee that Beijing would be receptive. If China turns a deaf ear, the volatile politics that brought Chen and Soong together could just as easily tear them apart.

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