Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Taiwan's president has unleashed a political storm at home and in the wider region by proclaiming what many would consider to be a statement of fact - that Taiwan is "an independent, sovereign country" distinct from the communist Chinese mainland.
President Chen Shui-bian also said he backed legislation for a referendum to be held on whether Taiwan should formally declare independence from China.
Speaking by video-link to a gathering of pro-independence Taiwanese campaigners in Japan, he poured cold water on the cherished "one country, two systems" formula that Beijing espouses. China hopes that formula will bring the capitalist island back into the fold, as was the case with former British and Portuguese colonies in the late 1990s.
"Our country cannot be bullied, dwarfed or marginalized, and we are not a part or a province of another country," Chen said. "We cannot become the second Hong Kong or Macau because we are an independent sovereign country."
The remarks are being compared to a 1999 statement by Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, who said Taiwan and China should have a "special-state-to-state" relationship.
That comment and its inference that Taiwan and China were political equals triggered an angry response from Beijing, whose official media outlets still refer to Lee with contempt as a result.
As yet China has not reacted fully to Chen's remarks.
A mainland foreign ministry spokesman was quoted Sunday as saying "the separation of China's sovereignty and territorial integrity will never be tolerated," and newspapers Monday carried an article from a leading scholar warning that Chen's moves would "create a new crisis in cross-Strait relations."
When China does give its response, it may be a heated one, judging by the tone of pro-Beijing newspapers.
One carried a warning Sunday that Chen should not to "play with fire" and lead Taiwan "to disaster." It said any move toward independence would lead to "conflicts" and that China would "definitely take appropriate action."
The paper also blamed the moves on "anti-China forces" in the U.S.
Reaction in Taiwanese media and political circles has been mixed, but Chen has been roundly criticized by his political opponents and some commentators. One paper characterized his remarks as "tough rhetoric against China," while the two largest opposition parties called them "dangerous."
Even the markets reacted negatively to the comments, with shares slipping more than five percent Monday. Many Taiwanese have invested in the mainland, although Chen has been urging investors to look to Southeast Asia too.
As accusations flew that the president was risking stability, senior officials in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said Chen had not announced a change in policy.
The president had been "merely stating a fact," said Chen Ming-tong, deputy head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the body responsible for relations across the Taiwan Strait.
The MAC's head will, nonetheless, visit the U.S. this week to make it clear Taiwan is not pursuing a new policy, according to reports from Taipei Monday.
Chen did win support from a pro-independence party now associated with former president Lee. The Taiwan Solidarity Union welcomed the remarks and said it would continue to work to have the legislature pass referendum legislation.
China and Taiwan split during a civil war half a century ago. China regards reunification as an inevitable and long overdue step and has threatened force if necessary to ensure it happens.
Chen and his DPP are traditionally pro-independence ideologically, but since he came to power in March 2000 the president has until now sought to improve relations with Beijing.
There has been little reciprocal goodwill, however. China has continued its efforts to freeze out Taiwan and its 23 million people from international forums like the World Health Organization and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
In recent weeks the atmosphere has soured further, partly as a result of a Pentagon report saying China was exploring various options to force a settlement with Taiwan, including air and missile strikes or a naval blockade.
Beijing also succeeded in luring away one of Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies. The Pacific island nation of Nauru ended more than 20 years of relations with Taipei by establishing ties with Beijing. Fewer than 30 countries, mostly small Latin American and African nations, recognize Taiwan.
Even a bill signed by President Bush last Friday listing Taiwan among America's allies drew an angry response from China, which called it "gross interference in China's internal affairs."
In a survey conducted before Chen's weekend remarks, just over 50 percent of Taiwanese respondents said they were worried Chen was considering moving towards formal independence if China did not respond to his efforts to improve relations.
Commenting on Beijing's possible reaction, Tamkang University professor Edward Chen predicted that, having got over the "shock" of Lee's stance in 1999, China may respond less fiercely this time.
Dr. Jian Yang, a China specialist at the University of Auckland, said Monday what happens next depends on whether Chen is careful not to antagonize Beijing further in the next few days.
Yang said the remarks were "potentially dangerous" and would have deepened China's existing mistrust of the Taiwanese leader.
After Chen assumed the presidency, he said, China had adopted a "wait and see" approach and Chen had himself been restrained, partly because of political instability and economic troubles at home.
Yang attributed the change in tone to "frustration" over Beijing's attempts to isolate Taiwan, as seen most recently in the loss of relations with Nauru.
Author Dr. Martin L. Lasater, writing this week for the Taiwan Security Research website, suggested a number of factors that could affect how the U.S. would respond to any future move towards formal independence by Taiwan.
Among these, he said, would be China's own reaction, its strength at the time, the state of its relations with the U.S., political developments inside China, how much support within Taiwan there was for the move, and the level of support for Taiwan in the White House and Congress.
Another factor would relate to the reason behind the move towards independence.
"If Taiwan's objectives were to preserve its freedom and prevent its absorption by the communist-controlled mainland, then U.S. support for Taiwan independence would be much greater than if Taiwan's objectives were to separate itself completely from the historical China," Lasater said.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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