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Ralph Jennings at Reuters has put together a retrospective on the Chen Shui-bian presidency that focuses on China policy…

His wife may have been indicted for graft and his anti-China rage upset major ally the United States, but departing President Chen Shui-bian charted Taiwan’s future by firming up its self-identity and cooling down Beijing.

Anti-China rage? It’s indicative that in the international media, Chen is always depicted as having some kind of irrational feeling about China, even though China threatens Taiwan in many different ways, whereas China’s desire to annex Taiwan is almost never depicted as irrational. What’s irrational about strongly objecting to being annexed? Nevertheless, the main point, that Chen moved the discussion on Taiwan’s relationship to China, is an important observation…

THE FORMULA on who owns Taiwan is nifty in a very subtle way:

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists (KMT) fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.

“….since 1949.” Yep. But not at all before WWII: China’s lust for Taiwan is a postwar phenomenon. This formulation is excellent, the best yet. Unfortunately the next paragraph is nowhere near as good:

Chen’s tough line on China, though it stalemated trade ties that might have pulled up Taiwan’s sagging economy and chilled support from Washington, forced Beijing to lighten up its rhetoric against the self-ruled island that it sees as its own.

Just the opposite: it was Chen who wanted to negotiate with China and China that threw that back in his face. Chen was willing to talk without preconditions, but China insisted on its condition that Taiwan was the property of China. It was China’s obdurate insistence on non-negotiations with Chen that has driven many of Chen’s actions over the last eight years. Jennings goes on to say:

Chen’s provocative China stance, including talk of seeking formal independence and efforts to join the United Nations, also raised hackles from once staunch ally the United States.

Washington is legally obligated to help Taiwan in a war against Beijing but wants good relations with China, as well.

Damage to U.S. ties will be repaired only if Ma breaks new ground with China without capitulating to Beijing’s political demands, political experts in the United States and Taiwan say.

The Bush Administration’s disapproval of Chen stems from a number of different factors, but outstanding among them is its obsessive pursuit of defeat in Iraq that has undercut its strength in so many ways. “Efforts to join the UN” have been ongoing since the 1990s, long before Chen — the difference was Chen’s use of the name “Taiwan.” The discussion of local politics is also interesting….

Chen’s also leaves behind a large challenge for his 22-year-old Democratic Progressive Party, whose populist image has been tarnished over the last eight years as Chen dumped six premiers over scandals and infighting.

Chen disappointed many amid allegations of misuse of government funds that resulted in indictments against his wife and aides. Chen himself could faces similar charges when he loses his presidential immunity after leaving office.

Media reports tend to focus on the scandal issue, since that is obvious and juicy. Yet Chen’s legacy for Taiwan’s democratic development was also mixed and deserves more publicity at the international level. I’ll be curious to read the scholarly assessments in 5 or 10 years…. Finally Jennings claims:

Chen, 57, rose to prominence as a former legislator and Taipei ex-mayor who previously spent eight months in jail for libelling a KMT politician. He has hinted he will travel once out of office and then set up and a public service foundation, said Hsiao Bi-khim, his party’s international affairs director.

Did Chen rise to prominence as a legislator? Or does his rise to prominence date from his work as a defense lawyer for the Kaohsiung 8?