He wonders about greatness, about what it takes. As the blue-and-white presidential Sikorsky lifts off from Nantou air-force base, he considers the evolution he must make from brilliant lawyer and astute politician to wise leader, perhaps, and even great man. It is a question raised by the very aspirations of his people and the potential of his state: Is Chen Shui-bian good enough, smart enough, man enough, to take Taiwan where it deserves to go? The helicopter takes flight, pushing the President back into his silver seat. He looks even smaller than his 5 ft. 4 in. You can't help thinking of the mission ahead of him--to lead Taiwan through a treacherous geopolitical landscape while propping up a floundering economy and fending off hostile domestic opposition--and wondering if this retiring, eager-eyed former maritime lawyer can remake himself into a world-class leader. The transformation, he hopes, begins today. "This is a great moment," Chen says. "We're writing the history of Taiwan. This moment, right now, is the most influential in our history. We can decide what our nation, our path, will be."
Taiwan, at this moment, is an island on the brink of embroilment in superpower conflict, of descent into economic distress and of an unprecedented national awakening and cultural flowering. It is on the brink of, dare anyone say it, nationhood--not in constitutional terms but, perhaps more important, in cultural terms. The 22.2 million Taiwanese and the rest of Asia as well have posited a Taiwan that is so much more than a cold war bulwark and superpower pawn. The island that used to be thought of as the un-China, the anti-Mao or, later, the chip fabricator, the hardware producer, is now, in its eyes at least, the bustling cultural center of Greater China. Of course, the mainland still dominates the Chinese world in geopolitical and economic terms, but whose soap operas are they watching in Bangkok? And whose Mando-pop CDs are they buying in Kuala Lumpur? After Japan, Taiwan is Asia's leading pop-culture exporter. And when you're exporting music, movies and TV shows, other countries are interested in what you think and who you are. The upshot is a state that confidently and pragmatically goes about its business--even though much of that business is on the mainland. To wander through Taipei or tour the countryside is to realize that the hoary topic of reunification is not so much an issue as an irrelevance, a political parlor game fraught with linguistic and semantic tricks played out in Beijing, Washington and Taipei.
As he prepares to embark on a state visit to Latin American that will include stops in New York City and Houston, Chen is readying a turn on the global stage. In Beijing, his plan to visit the U.S. has caused barely a blip. China is "firmly opposed" to the visit, of course, but since Chen took office, Beijing's position has been to have no position on him. State-run media have yet to mention his name. And Chen's offer last week to meet his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, was flatly rejected by the Chinese.
So far, Chen has been more a reactive Chief Executive than an agenda-setting statesman. Although elected as the candidate of a party formally identified with Taiwanese independence, Chen has been trying to soften his position on that issue. Upon taking office, he immediately sought to soothe frayed relations with Beijing.