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Commentary (May 10, 2006)

Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian: Pride Before a Fall?

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

Last month, before President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House, Chinese officials made it clear that they hoped US President George W. Bush would publicly reprimand Taiwan's leader, Chen Shui-bian, with Mr Hu at his side, much as he had done in 2003 during a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao.

They did not get their wish. But two weeks later, they obtained something that, from Beijing's perspective, is just as good - the public humiliation of the Taiwanese president when his request for a stopover in New York or San Francisco was rejected. Mr Chen decided to reject the offer of Anchorage as an alternative, saying that he needed to uphold Taiwan's "national dignity". Instead, he took the long route, flying an additional 12 hours to get to Central America.

Relations between Taiwan and the US are at a low point - a situation that can only delight Beijing. And Taiwan, instead of moving to repair relations with the one country that guarantees its security, seems to be going out of its way to damage that relationship.

True, Mr Chen did not blame Washington directly. Instead, he lashed out at Beijing, saying that it had put pressure on Washington. But the world's only superpower is unlikely to be pleased that tiny Taiwan is telling the world that Washington was being bullied by mainland China.

In fact, the Taiwanese leader has no one to blame but himself. Mr Bush took office in 2001 determined to upgrade ties with Taiwan and downgrade those with the mainland, which he considered a "strategic competitor". In the first months of his presidency, Mr Bush promised to do "whatever it took" to help Taiwan defend itself, and offered an unprecedented arms package that included eight diesel-powered submarines.

As for transit visas, the Bush administration was much more generous towards Mr Chen than the Clinton administration had been to Lee Teng-hui when he was Taiwan's president. Mr Chen was allowed not only to rest while his plane was refuelled, but also to spend the night - sometimes several - in major cities sightseeing, giving speeches, and meeting politicians and the media.

However, Mr Chen repeatedly tried Mr Bush's patience. In late 2003, he decided to hold a highly sensitive political referendum. Mr Bush sent an emissary to ask Mr Chen to reconsider, but he went ahead anyway.

That episode ended with Mr Bush publicly rebuking him as someone willing to make unilateral decisions that risk upsetting the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

After that, the US was less generous with its transit visas. Mr Chen was limited to overnight stays and denied visits to key cities.

Earlier this year, he again embarrassed Washington when he announced he would abolish the National Unification Council and its associated guidelines - something that he had promised not to do.

Eventually, he agreed not to use the word "abolish", but ordered that the council "cease to function" and the guidelines "cease to apply". Even so, Washington felt that he had gone back on his pledge.

Mr Chen was reportedly warned at the time that his actions could affect future applications for transit visas, but he went ahead anyway.

He is scheduled to return to Taiwan from Costa Rica tomorrow. If, as has been reported, he again bypasses the US, he will have inflicted grave damage on Taiwan's most important relationship, simply because of his pride.

In future, Washington would have good reason to deny transit requests, since Mr Chen would have shown that stopping over in the United States is unnecessary.

For the sake of its own security, Taiwan needs to mend fences with this strategic partner. It cannot afford a president who puts his personal feelings above the interests of the people he is supposed to represent.

(Originally appeared in the May 10, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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