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Cross-straight relations in Taiwan's presidential election
Willy Lam
3/19/2004

No military action for the Taiwan Strait--not even psychological warfare oriented missile drills such as those undertaken in late 1995 and early 1996--is being planned by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) for the coming year or so. And this will be true whether President Chen Shui-bian or his challenger, Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan, wins in the hotly contested polls on March 20. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is readying hardball solutions to the reunification problem for the medium-term.

A triumph for the head of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will of course disappoint the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, particularly President Hu Jintao, who heads the policy-setting Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA). As of early this month, Beijing's cabinet level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) had predicted a narrow victory for Lien. Apart from the much circulated argument that Chen's is an "administration by boy scouts," the TAO made its call mainly based on two factors. The first is that, while four years ago Chen had enjoyed the support of a sizeable number of big name businessmen, this time the corporate world in Taiwan has pretty much deserted the DPP president en masse. The other reason is that a significant portion of the DPP's traditional supporters--those of the under-40 generation--are having second thoughts because of relatively high unemployment and their fear of losing their lives in a battle with the PLA.

However, Beijing sources have said that in the event of a Chen victory the CCP leadership's official response would still be: "We'll weigh his words and watch his actions." This relatively conciliatory stance is evident from Premier Wen Jiabao's press conference at the end of the National People's Congress (NPC) last week. When asked about Beijing's attitude toward the election, Wen said his government would "exert [its] utmost efforts" to resume cross-Straits dialogue and negotiations under the one China principle. Cadres in Beijing who handle Taiwan-related issues will be looking closely at Chen's inaugural speech on May 20 for signs that, after dealing perhaps a body blow to the demoralized KMT, the apparently pragmatic president may gradually climb down from his provocative, Beijing-baiting campaign rhetoric--and move back to a more centrist position.

Most importantly, given that most Taiwan experts in Beijing have very little trust left in Chen, the CCP leadership will be scrutinizing how the DPP administration goes about revising Taiwan's constitution. Late last year, Chen had vowed to update the island's charter in such a way as to "reflect Taiwan's full statehood," meaning, for example, that its official name will be changed from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan. The Taiwan president also pledged that the new constitution would be ratified by a referendum to be called in late 2006. However, Beijing still harbors hope that intense opposition from the island's business community and non-DPP parties--as well as pressure from the United States--will oblige Chen to significantly tone down the constitutional revision process.

However, if by mid-2005 or so it has become obvious to Beijing that Chen is persevering with what the CCP leadership calls his "ambition of becoming the father of the Taiwan nation," the Hu team will likely unleash something drastic. One option that has been suggested by LGTA experts is the enactment of a Law on National Reunification (LNR). After the statute is ratified by the NPC, the government--and the PLA--will be obligated to achieve national reunification within a certain time frame.

According to a source familiar with Beijing's Taiwan policy making apparatus, a possible version of the LNR will spell out that Beijing will immediately invite Taiwan authorities to begin negotiations under the broad framework of "peaceful union under the one China principle." If, however, Taipei refuses to respond to Beijing’s offer, the Chinese government will, in accordance with the LNR, have to attain unification by whatever means before the deadline falls due. "Beijing is convinced that the LNR is in accordance with international law and global norms because with the exception of two dozen-odd small nations, all countries in the world recognize the "one China principle," including the fact that Taiwan is part of China," the source said.

The source added that the LNR idea was still being fine-tuned. He said the "final date" for reunification had not yet been fixed--and both 2008 and 2010 were mentioned in internal circles as possibilities. For example, the year 2008 is perceived as a "reasonable" deadline given that it would coincide with the end of Chen's second term. More significantly, both Chen and his putative mentor, former president Lee Teng-hui, have cited the same year as the best time for Taiwan to achieve formal or de jure independence.

Beijing analysts have pointed out that, despite historical and other differences, the "deadline" contained in the LNR will have a similar impact--one of inevitability--as the 1997 time frame for Hong Kong's return to the Chinese motherland. Moreover, Beijing believes that since the United States has never ruled Taiwan, Washington will have much less legal--or moral--authority over Taiwan than Britain had had over Hong Kong, its erstwhile Crown Colony.

Apart from China's growing economic and diplomatic clout, Beijing will of course be relying on naked military power to enforce the LNR. And there is little question that China's arms buildup, particularly with reference to Taiwan, will escalate in the coming year or so. Western military analysts expect unprecedented resources to be devoted to equipment and weapons in areas including missiles, satellite surveillance and IT warfare. It is noteworthy that when Finance Minister Jin Renqing announced an 11.6 percent boost for the PLA budget at the NPC, he made reference to the need for military preparation for the purpose of national reunification.

And what if victory is clinched by the KMT's Lien, who is running on a joint ticket with the charismatic chairman of the People's First Party (PFP), James Soong? The so-called Pan Blue Alliance's chances have been boosted by a larger than expected turnout of around 3 million people at a rally on March 13. The rally called for the end of the "incompetent and degenerate" Chen government. There was talk in the Chinese capital that after seeing the massive anti-DPP rally, some Taiwan-related cadres in Beijing had ordered champagne and Mao Tai liquor for a party on March 20 to celebrate the "final demise of splittist Chen."

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing and Taipei say that for the near term the Hu-Wen administration may heave a sigh of relief on seeing Lien occupy the Presidential Palace in Taipei. However, the KMT, which may then merge with the PFP, has undergone a significant metamorphosis over the past year--in the direction of stressing the "native Taiwanese identity" of the century old party. This was symbolized by the climax of the March 13 anti-DPP demonstration, when both Lien and Soong fell flat on the ground and kissed the earth in an emotional display of their "loyalty to Taiwan."

In other words, while the KMT and PFP had until about a year ago vigorously advocated eventual reunification with the mainland, Lien, Soong and their colleagues have recognized a shift of public opinion. To survive, a merged KMT-PFP must build better bonds with the more than 70 percent of Taiwan's 24 million residents who consider themselves "Taiwanese," and not "Chinese." There are even suggestions from younger KMT cadres that the party change should its name to the Taiwan Kuomintang to better reflect its native Taiwanese orientation.

Thus, while Lien may live up to his campaign promise of making a "private trip" to the mainland before the May 20 official presidential inauguration, the future president must deflect criticism that the KMT is "selling out Taiwan to the mainland." It is likely that the Lien team will be able to forge ahead with economic ties with the mainland, particularly the establishment of direct air and shipping links between major cities in Taiwan and coastal China. But as for formal reunification talks under the one-China framework, Lien, Soong and their advisers are unlikely to make any commitment without a clear-cut popular mandate.

Given that during its first term, from 2002 to 2008, the Hu-Wen administration's goal is to prevent Taipei from going further down the road of independence--and not to achieve reunification as such--Beijing will, at least in the near term, steer clear of drastic measures following a Lien victory. However, after the Fourth Generation leadership has consolidated power at the Seventeenth CCP Congress, due to take place in late 2007, it is likely that Beijing will contemplate hardline solutions along the lines of an LNR.

After all, although the commercial imperative is working toward economic integration across the Taiwan Strait, the laws of culture, history and demographics seem to favor the accentuation of a distinct Taiwan identity on the island. And this means that even if the DPP is defeated this time around, Chen's younger colleagues will lose no time in trying to recoup power by appealing to the sense of quasi-nationhood that is growing among the Taiwanese. And emboldened by China's fast growing international clout as well as the PLA's prowess, the Hu-Wen team may decide soon after the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 that it had better take decisive action before the momentum toward Taiwan independence becomes irrevocable.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia's best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN's Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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