Commentary

Careful What You Wish For: The Effort to Oust Chen Shui-bian

Taiwan’s opposition politicians are persisting in their efforts to oust President Chen Shui-bian apparently oblivious to the fact that, if successful, they would bring an even more pro-independence successor to power. That could provoke a crisis with China which no one, including these politicians, wants.

Having already failed in their efforts to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to call a referendum on removing Mr. Chen from office, legislators from the “Pan Blue” coalition of Taiwan’s Kuomintang and People First parties are now trying a new tactic. A proposed no confidence motion in his government only requires a simple majority to be passed, and could force Mr. Chen to call fresh legislative elections at a time when his political fortunes and those of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party are at a low ebb.

That might well prompt Mr. Chen to resign rather than face a new legislature that would be even more dominated by his adversaries. Even if it fails, the continuing pressure could cause him to decide to quit. Plagued by corruption scandals, which have now touched his immediate family, Mr. Chen is unlikely to have much appetite for serving out the remaining 22 months of his presidency as a lame duck under constant attack from his political opponents.

If Mr. Chen goes, his successor would be Vice President Annette Lu. That alone should be enough to make the Pan Blue camp think twice about the wisdom of continuing down this path, since Ms. Lu makes the current president look like a model of moderation on Taiwanese independence.

Ms. Lu has previously declared that Taiwan has been independent since it held its first democratic presidential elections in 1996, “because it’s only an independent, sovereign state that holds presidential elections.” She’s taunted Beijing by describing China as nothing more than a “distant relative and a close neighbor.” And the Chinese leadership has responded by calling her “a lunatic” and “the scum of the nation,” a degree of vitriol that exceeds anything directed even at Mr. Chen and other DPP leaders.

Just how far Ms. Lu would push the envelope upon becoming president is hard to predict. But, if she sticks to past form, there would be a real risk of cross-Strait tensions, culminating in a dangerous confrontation between Taiwan and China. That’s a matter of concern for Japan, South Korea, Singapore and other nations in East Asia. It’s also a matter of concern for the United States. In recent Congressional testimony, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick bluntly stated: “[Taiwan] independence means war. And that means American sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines.”

That’s not something Taiwan’s opposition, which supports closer ties with China, wants either. But the Pan Blues hate Mr. Chen so much that they seem willing to ignore the likely consequences for relations with China of bringing Annette Lu to power. They’re also ignoring their own short-term political interests. Allowing the unpopular Mr. Chen, whose popularity ratings have slumped to 28%, to remain in office would give the Pan Blue camp a great advantage over any candidate the DPP nominates for the presidential election in 2008. But if Mr. Chen resigns, Ms. Lu will have nearly two years to show she can do the job, and could run as an incumbent in 2008.

For all these reasons, the Pan Blue camp would be well-advised to abandon its efforts to oust Mr. Chen before they produce consequences no one wants.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of seven books on international affairs, including America’s Coming War with China: A Collision Course over Taiwan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).