Taiwan Scraps Council on Unity With China

By Tim Culpan and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Feb. 28 -- Defying warnings from China and the United States, Taiwan eliminated its National Unification Council on Monday and said that only the Taiwanese people can decide whether they want to rejoin the mainland.

The decision was likely to have little immediate impact on how the independence-minded President Chen Shui-bian governs; the 16-year-old council has long been dormant, and there is no prospect of reunification anytime soon.

But scrapping it, along with a set of reunification guidelines, dramatized Chen's resolve to lead the island toward formal independence.

The move seems set to chill a slightly improving atmosphere between China and Taiwan. Charter flights were allowed to carry families to and from Taiwan for the recent Spring Festival, for instance.

Since Chen took office in 2000, he had promised repeatedly to keep the reunification body in place. That was one of several vows he made to allay fears that his nationalism could lead him into reckless decisions that would risk conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

His decision raised fears he might go back on other issues, such as revising the constitution or changing the Republic of China's formal name to Taiwan.

China's government and Communist Party Taiwan affairs offices jointly condemned Chen's move as an incitement to tension. "Chen Shui-bian persists in pushing the radical route of Taiwanese independence and provoking confrontation and conflict within Taiwanese society and across the Taiwan Strait," they said in a statement Tuesday. "This will only bring disaster to Taiwanese society."

The Bush administration had urged Chen to refrain from any decision that could be read as a change in the status quo. Chen said his move did not amount to such a change. Nevertheless, he declared that the council had "ceased to function" and the guidelines had "ceased to apply."

State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli noted Chen's statements. "We'll be following his follow-through carefully," Ereli said.

The White House 10 days ago dispatched Dennis Wilder, an Asia specialist on the National Security Council staff, and Clifford Hart, who handles Taiwan affairs at the State Department, to Taipei for an unannounced meeting with Chen to press the U.S. case.

Chen rejected the appeals, press reports said. He followed up last week by telling a visiting U.S. congressman, Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), that the council and guidelines were "absurd products of an absurd era."

The island, 100 miles southeast of the Chinese coast, has in practice been self-ruled since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled there in 1949 after his defeat by Mao Zedong's Communist forces. China has warned it will prevent, by force if necessary, any move to declare formal independence.

The reunification council was set up in 1990 by the then-governing Nationalist Party. Taiwan's political landscape has since changed dramatically, particularly with Chen's leadership on a pro-independence platform.

Cody reported from Beijing.

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