Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, currently on medical parole, views deteriorating ties between China and the US as an opportunity for Taiwan to improve ties with Washington and raise its international stature.

Chen, who from 2000 to 2008 served as Taiwan’s second popularly elected president but was later jailed on bribery charges, spoke out to the Tokyo-based broadsheet Sankei Shimbun. He argued that Taiwan must launch a referendum to gauge public opinion on the issue of independence and to make it unequivocally clear that Taiwanese “do not want to be annexed by China.”

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Former Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian told a Japanese newspaper that the island should seek to gain the maximum advantage out of discord between China and the US. Photo: Sankei Shimbun

Chen, who is not permitted to engage in public events or interviews under the conditions of his medical parole, made the remarks at a seminar in Kaohsiung on Sunday. He was jailed for money-laundering and accepting bribes in 2009, but was released on parole three years ago.

Beijing’s aggressive poaching of Taipei’s diplomatic allies is part of its attempts to threaten Taiwan’s existence, Chen was quoted as saying.

Chen’s eight years of presidency were fraught with crises, with the island teetering on the brink of war with mainland China. Beijing launched one military drill after another and enacted an anti-secession law in a bid to force Taiwan into reunification.

Chen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, vocally embraces a pro-independence platform, and warned numerous times while in office that China could “recapture” the island at any time.

Last week he told reporters that the chance of hostilities breaking out between Taiwan and the mainland could be even higher now, more than two years into the presidency of another independence-leaning DPP leader.

Chen claims that President Tsai Ing-wen’s policy of maintaining a cross-Strait “status quo” is “insufficient,” adding that holding a poll to let the world know Taiwan’s feelings on independence would be “the best way.”

Though he asserts that Taiwan may be able to improve ties with Washington while a US-China trade war rages, Chen also cautions that the island could just be “a card for the US to play against China.” He also argues that no Taiwanese should ever pin unrealistic hopes on Donald Trump.

The newspapers also noted that President Tsai’s perceived weakness to Beijing’s military and diplomatic coercion had already made some hardcore DPP voters call for Chen to run again in 2020.

Taiwan's former President Chen Shui-bian shows his handcuffed hands to the media while being sent from the prosecutors' office to the Taipei District Court November 11, 2008. Chen, an anti-China firebrand known for advocating Taiwan's independence from Beijing, was in custody on Tuesday after being questioned for most of the day about a money-laundering case. Photo: Reuters
Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian shows his cuffed hands to media while being sent from the prosecutors’ office to the Taipei District Court on November 11, 2008. Photo: Reuters

Chen was leaning on a cane and looked feeble when the Japanese reporters arrived, but livened up when discussing Taiwan’s future, the Sankei said.

Chen’s prosecutors placed a host of restrictions on the former president when he was granted parole, including a ban on attending political activities or exposure in media or social media, and, despite the fact that Tsai is also from the DPP, the incumbent leader is yet to pardon him.