Chen Shui-bian's narrow victory in the March 20 "presidential" election was at least partially the result of a mysterious election-eve shooting, according to local media.
The shooting, which slightly injured both Chen and his running mate Annette Lu, is believed to have caused a swell of sympathy votes for the Taiwan "leader" and led to his razor-thin re-election.
Experts on cross-Straits studies say the shooting influenced not only the election results, but also the direction of relations between Taiwan and the mainland.
"At this time, nobody can accurately predict how cross-Straits ties will develop in the coming four years," says Professor Fan Xizhou with the Taiwan Research Institute of Xiamen University.
"But one thing for sure is that bilateral ties are facing more uncertainty, given Chen's stated plan to push ahead with his pro-independence bid."
The professor told China Daily that most researchers on Taiwan studies agree that potential conflict and crisis may arise if Chen sticks to his pro-independence timetable.
In an article in Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese-language newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings, Sima Da, a US-based political analyst, wrote that the major threat in cross-Straits relations is posed by separatist forces' desperate push for immediate Taiwan independence..
In fact, the bold pro-independence remarks from the Taiwan leader after the March election have already sparked deep worry from experts as well as the public.
Chen did nothing to hide his pro-independence intentions. In media interviews following his highly disputed re-election, the Taiwan leader has stated time and again his intention to hold a referendum for the drafting of a new "constitution" in 2006 and enacting the document in 2008.
Although Chen claims his plan will not alter the cross-Straits status quo, such a push is widely believed to be an attempt to achieve formal independence for the island.
Beijing views the plan as "a naked Taiwan independence timetable" which will only fuel tensions and danger in the Taiwan Straits.
Li Weiyi, spokesman with the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, says the mainland will show its greatest sincerity and make the utmost effort to achieve peaceful reunification, but Taiwan independence will never be tolerated.
"Anybody or any forces should not underestimate the determination and capability of the Chinese Government and its 1.3 billion people to safeguard national unity and sovereignty and territorial integrity at any price," he says.
While promoting peaceful reunification between the mainland and Taiwan, Beijing has not renounced the use of force if Taiwan declares independence.
Chen's radical pro-independence plan has prompted the United States to sternly warn the Taiwan leader to refrain from pursuing formal independence for the island.
"The possibility of the United States becoming involved in a cross-Strait conflict is very real," said James Kelly, US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
"We in the United States see these risks clearly and trust they are well understood by (Chen) and others in Taiwan."
Kelly, speaking on April 21 at a hearing of the US House International Relations Committee, urged Chen to exercise "restrained leadership" and to take seriously the Chinese mainland's pledge to protect territorial integrity.
Washington in recent months has become increasingly alarmed at Chen's comments on adoption of a new "constitution" and other steps that could be perceived as moving Taiwan toward independence.
Kelly reiterated that the United States does not support Taiwan independence.
"A unilateral move towards independence will avail Taiwan of nothing it does not already enjoy in terms of democratic freedom, autonomy, prosperity and security," he said.
"We look to Chen to exercise the kind of responsible, democratic and restrained leadership that will be necessary to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for Taiwan."
The next day, Matthew Daley, US deputy assistant secretary of State said in Singapore that the United States opposes moves by either side (of the Taiwan Straits) to unilaterally change the status quo.
"For Taiwan, this means exercising prudence in all areas touching on cross-Straits relations and avoiding any provocative gestures that advocate or appear to advocate independence," Daley told a security conference.
On April 26, David Keegan, deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the US agency dealing with Washington-Taipei relations, went further to caution that the US pledge to help defend the island cannot be perceived as a blank cheque.
"We believe a secure and self-confident Taiwan is a Taiwan that is more capable of engaging in political interaction and dialogue with the People's Republic of China and we expect Taiwan will not interpret our support as a blank cheque to resist such dialogue," Keegan told a symposium in Taipei.
Stern warning from US
Mainland researchers say the series of US warnings against Taiwan edging towards a permanent split from China indicate Washington has some heavy doubts about Chen's political credibility.
"Chen's preoccupation with the pro-independence push has forced Washington to withdraw its unconditional support for the Taiwan leader for fear that the United States will finally be drawn into a crisis," says Li Jiaquan, a senior researcher with the Institute of Taiwan Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The researcher stresses that the national interests of the United States will be endangered if Washington fails to prove that Chen cannot count on US support to carry out his separatist agenda.
Washington's cautious attitude towards its relations with Taiwan sharply contrasts with its pledge in early 2001 to "do whatever it takes" to defend the island, Li says.
With the planned May 20 inauguration drawing near, Washington will be looking at Chen's inaugural speech as a key indicator of his future cross-Straits policy.
On May 8, US Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed the US' one-China policy and expressed the hope that both sides of the Straits will act prudently.
"We have said that we do not support independence of Taiwan, so we look forward to seeing 'president' Chen's inaugural speech," Powell said.
Chen himself is already busy preparing for his inauguration although his second term has yet to be confirmed by the results of an ongoing recount of the hotly disputed "presidential" polls that is expected to end one day before the inauguration day.
The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) claim the recount has revealed some new problems, including ballots that were improperly stored or not certified by the voters.
The voting irregularities along with the unexplained election-eve shooting overshadow the legitimacy of Chen's re-election even if the island's high court rules not to overturn his victory.
Facing mounting pressure from both within and outside the island, Chen is calculatedly relying on his inaugural speech to consolidate support for him, at least temporarily.
On May 1, Chen claimed the content in his inaugural speech is sure to win satisfaction from Taiwan people, affirmation from the United States and appreciation from the international community.
What's more important, the speech will not lend any "excuse" to Beijing, he added.
Taiwan media reports said Chen has established a special team to help draft the inaugural speech, which will reaffirm the "four nos" pledge in line with the hope of Washington.
During his 2000 inaugural, Chen laid out his "four nos" vow, which requires Taiwan to refrain from declaring independence, changing the "national title," incorporating the concept of "state-to-state" relations between the island and the mainland in its "constitution" or promoting any referendum on changing the status quo in regard to independence.
Even if Chen manages to deliver a similar message and soften his separatist stance in his speech, it will be difficult for him to convince Beijing he will not push through his pro-independence timetable in the coming years, says Professor Kai-Huang Yang with Taiwan's Dong Hwa University.
He adds that Beijing will pay more attention to what Chen does during his second term rather than accept his inaugural speech at its face value.
Based on observation of what Chen did during his four years in office, the mainland has concluded the Taiwan leader is a diehard pro-independence member, the professor says.
"They place no expectation or hope on Chen and are just watching how far and in what way Chen dare walk (along the pro-independence road) in the coming years," Yang notes.
Asked to comment on Chen's upcoming inauguration, Li Weiyi, spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office, urged Chen to immediately abandon his separatist activities.
"We do not care who is elected in Taiwan; what we care most about is whether the elected man accepts the one-China principle or not," he told a regular press conference on Wednesday.
He warned that cross-Straits ties will not achieve peace and stability unless Chen stops his pro-independence push and immediately embraces the one-China principle.
"There is no alternative for him (to take) if he really wants to pursue a peaceful and stable cross-Straits relationship," Li said.
Chen, however, since taking power in May 2000, has refused to accept the one-China principle that both the mainland and Taiwan are part of China.
So it seems the Taiwan leader faces a tough decision in choosing between peace and confrontation.
(China Daily May 14, 2004)