Some say Chen Shui-bian is a brilliant politician. That may be true in that he has managed time and again to survive one political crisis after another. But ultimately politicians are judged on their leadership abilities, of which Chen has none.
His latest political trickery is a referendum on whether "Taiwan" belongs in the United Nations. He has managed to whip the island nation into a frenzy with this call of "basic democracy." But as a political comedy, this is absurd, but not funny.
Taiwan has no chance of becoming a member of the United Nations. It's not going to happen as long as the People's Republic of China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It doesn't make things right, but that's the reality. China particularly will not tolerate the blatant challenge to its own absurd "One China" policy by allowing an entity called "Taiwan" -- not the legal name of the Republic of China -- into the U.N.
Chen knows this, but just as everything he's done in his seven years of utter failure as the president, he is more interested in preserving his own power via political gamesmanship than doing anything useful for the island's 23 million inhabitants. His approval ratings are in the low 20s or high teens, which make George W. Bush's numbers look robust. The island's economy has remained stagnant since he took office in 2000. And relations with China continue to deteriorate while he's in office.
But he knows how to put his rival Kuomintang (KMT) on the defensive. A rather feckless lot, the KMT leadership constantly is playing catch-up and never seems to be able to take advantage of the recent troubles experienced by Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party. Chen's U.N. gambit of course took the KMT by surprise, as the party is now scrambling to find the right message to connect with the voters, who are suddenly deluded by Chen's rhetoric.
Getting a whole country to act delusional may be a political master stroke, but it's a dangerous game with deadly consequences. Taiwan will not get into the U.N., period, so it's a zero-sum game. This move has already peeved off the United States so much that Taiwan's latest fighter jet purchase to replace the aging F-5s has hit the skids. And of course, China is seething.
Chen doesn't care. He never stops scheming, whether it's bashing Chiang Kai-shek's statues or changing all entities with the name of "China" to "Taiwan," it's just a game for him. As long as the electorate is willing to be suckered, he will continue to invent new games.
Taiwan has languished over the last eight years under Chen's "leadership." While engaging in these political shenanigans, Chen has neglected to make a real pitch for Taiwan to gain actual political clout and international respect. And he has unnecessarily inflamed an already volatile situation across the Taiwan Strait by endlessly antagonizing China and testing the patience of its only patron, the United States.
China's leadership, on the other hand, has been rather shrewd in dealing with Chen. Unlike his predecessor Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao has kept his saber rattling to a minimum, knowing that he can better affect Taiwan's elections by keeping mum. He is hoping that the KMT and its presumed candidate Ma Ying-jeou will win the presidential election next March. Such an outcome would serve China's interests better because the KMT is far more likely to seek accommodations and normalize relations with China than the DDP.
But if the DDP pulls the upset -- and why wouldn't it, Chen already did it twice -- then all bets are off. China will rapidly seek a political endgame if it feels Taiwan is drifting further away. Since the Beijing Olympics is of monumental importance to the regime, China isn't likely to pursue any militarily aggressive stance until the Games are over. But after August 2008, things could get hot.
And when the missiles start flying across the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwanese people will have only one guy to blame. Not the brilliant politician, but the ultimate political hack.