Arts & Culture 
 Business 
 Environment 
 Government 
 Health 
 Human Rights 
 Military 
 Philosophy 
 Science 
 U.S. Asian Policy 


Home > East Asia > 

The aftermath of Taiwan's presidential election (Part II)
A symposium report
Jacques deLisle
7/8/2004

 Related Articles
The aftermath of Taiwan's presidential election (Part I)
Cross-straight relations in Taiwan's presidential election
 
THE ELECTION, FOREIGN RELATIONS, AND TAIWAN'S INTERNATIONAL STATUS
Cross-Strait Policy and Taiwan Identity. Cross-Strait policy has persisted as the dominant factor in Taiwan's external relations and a key factor in Taiwanese politics more generally. But the 2004 campaign and Chen's reelection brought a significant shift -- from blue toward green -- in Taiwanese debate. While Chen's inaugural speech sought to convey a moderate tone, his campaign's "Taiwan, Yes!; (China, No!)" theme was unmistakable and in some respects unprecedented.

More significantly, the pan-Blue camp has moved substantially toward pan-Green positions. The opposition parties dared not speak as approvingly as they once had about reunification. Where four years earlier Chen had to calm fears that he might be too radically pro-independence, the pan-Blue parties in 2004 had to settle for diluting, rather than stopping, Chen's calls for referenda on cross- Strait security issues. Lien and Soong were forced to defend proposed initiatives for better relations with the mainland against charges that they were insufficiently protecting Taiwan's interests. Chen mocked the KMT as the "Chinese Nationalist Party," and the pan-Blue candidates were reduced to kissing the ground as a public demonstration of their fealty to Taiwan. Cross-Strait policies on both sides of the Strait seemed likely to have to cope with a Taiwanese identity increasingly including all Taiwan residents and excluding PRC nationals, the emergence of which was spurred on by Chen's campaign and inaugural address, Lien's and Soong's defensive responses, and Lee's pre-election "hands across Taiwan" event, held on the anniversary of the February 28, 1947, KMT massacre of Taiwanese civilians.

The U.S. The election and its aftermath underscored the continuing centrality in Taiwan's external affairs of U.S.-Taiwan relations and the U.S.'s policy on cross-Strait issues. It revealed problems in the U.S.'s ability to send clear and effective signals to Taiwan and, perhaps, China as well. As noted earlier, key Taiwanese constituencies overestimated the "message" behind Chen's October visit to the U.S. and underestimated the verbal slap Bush delivered to Chen during the PRC premier's December visit. The flurry of envoys Washington sent to Taipei to convey to Chen the administration's views on the referenda and other issues reflected its own lack of certainty that its position was understood, and yet its public statements seemed mixed and shifting as to just how strongly it opposed the referenda and whether and how soon it would "congratulate" Chen on his victory.

Taiwan and the U.S. could both benefit if U.S. officials paid more attention to developing precise positions on Taiwan and cross-Strait issues and then articulating these clearly and consistently. The Bush administration's expression of satisfaction with Chen's May 20 inaugural speech, and top DPP personnel's subsequent comments that they heard Washington's views loud and clear, suggest at least modest progress on this front. Washington's positive comments on the inaugural address and its announcement of a sale of missile-detecting radar technology to Taiwan after the election reaffirmed the close ties between Washington and Taipei. Yet, minor swings of the pendulum in the opposite direction are hardly out of the question in the near future as Chen turns to an agenda that the PRC derides as separatist, destabilizing, and provocative. Such modest shifts in policy will continue to risk creating misconceptions that more significant changes are afoot.

The basic U.S.-Taiwan relationship remains solid and strong 25 years after the signing of its framework document, the U.S.'s Taiwan Relations Act, adopted in April 1979. Indeed, it is ironic that there have been so many highly visible sources of conflict in Taiwan's relationship with an administration in Washington that has been, in terms of its broad policy inclinations and sympathies, the most "pro-Taiwan" in recent history.

China. The election showed that Taiwan's external relations would continue to operate under the shadow of Beijing's determination -- but apparent lack of effective peaceful means -- to prevent what it sees as Taiwan's dangerous drift toward independence. Developments on this front during the election campaign indicated potentially significant shifts in China's tactics for addressing this long-standing issue. While Beijing clearly found Chen no more appealing in 2004 than it had found Lee in 1996 or Chen in 2000, its eschewal of missile tests and its abandonment of the stern warnings Premier Zhu had made about the dire consequences of the wrong election results suggested that Beijing had learned something about the futility of such threatening methods. Over the long run, the more subtle forms of pressure it deployed in the March 2004 elections -- pointedly politically motivated audits and inspections of Taiwan-invested PRC firms and their partners, and inducing other countries' leaders to make statements along the lines of the one that Bush made to Wen Jiabao -- may be more effective.

Some of Beijing's post-election moves, however, seemed like a return to less subtle tactics. It pointedly and publicly rolled up the economic welcome mat for a prominent pro-Taiwan businessman, and scheduled war games near the Strait. China's post-election thundering about how it could not remain passively on the sidelines if Taiwan descended into chaos sounded all too familiar, and is likely to backfire, as its attempts to affect Taiwan's presidential politics in 1996 and 2000 did: any disorder that gave the PRC a pretext for threatened intervention would be seen by many Taiwanese as the fault of the parties that Beijing supported -- the pan-Blues who took to the streets to protest the pan-Green victory.

The pan-Greens' victory probably means that the PRC will have to drop its policy of not dealing with Chen unless he accepts the one-China principle. Waiting him out for eight years will be a good deal more difficult than waiting him out for four years. And trying to ignore Chen for four more years surely looks more risky, because his first four years were marked by what the PRC saw as an unacceptable inching toward independence, because the PRC's cold-shoulder policy apparently had not deterred enough voters from supporting Chen, and because the PRC discerns that Chen might move more boldly toward Taiwanese independence during his final term.

Hong Kong. Hong Kong remained a salient factor in Taiwan's approach to cross-Strait relations. Since before Hong Kong's 1997 reversion to Chinese rule, Taiwanese leaders and spokesmen have insisted that "Taiwan is not Hong Kong." They have eagerly pointed to signs of the Special Administrative Region's autonomy eroding, the stifling of development of its democracy, and, sometimes, setbacks to the Hong Kong economy to support their case for rejecting anything resembling "one country, two systems" for Taiwan. Recent protests in Hong Kong over the Article 23 legislation (addressing sedition, state secrets and related matters) and controversy over the PRC National People's Congress's rejection of calls for universal suffrage for the SAR's 2007 elections made Hong Kong useful as a negative example for the pan-Green agenda.

It is difficult to assess what events in Hong Kong reveal about the PRC's Taiwan policy. Recent events in the SAR may simply have reflected unfortunate timing from Beijing's perspective. Their coincidence with the Taiwan election cycle forced the PRC to balance its Hong Kong goals against its Taiwan goals. Or the PRC may have taken an especially tough line toward pressure from Hong Kong for autonomy partly in order to make the depth of its commitment to national political integrity clear to Taiwanese.

International Status. The question of Taiwan's international status as a state or state-like entity endures as a core concern. In the 2004 campaign, the status question pervaded two issues that Chen promised would carry into his second term. While Chen insists the two issues-- the referenda on the March ballot and constitutional revision--are not related to the status issue, his denials are hard to sustain, for several reasons.

Any use of the term "referendum" in Taiwan's politics inevitably resonates with the "independence referendum" that was once a plank in the DPP platform but that Chen has promised to eschew under present conditions. Some possible referenda that Chen and his supporters had hoped to bring (but could not under the new referendum law) addressed issues that had long been seen as germane to Taiwan's international status. Most notable among these was the post-SARS quest for representation in the World Health Organization. Because the WHO is a UN affiliate, it is, on the PRC's view, a states-only entity. As authority for the two questions put to voters in March, Chen relied on the provision in the new referendum law permitting referenda when national security is under threat. National security is an interest or right of states. The texts of both referenda at least implicitly asserted an equal status for Taiwan and the PRC: the first equated the PRC's missile threat and Taiwan's defense posture; the second proposed a framework for cross-Strait dealings that evoked longstanding Taiwanese assertions of equality between the entities on either side.

Constitutional reform, or (as Chen put it in his second inaugural) reengineering similarly implicated questions of Taiwan's international status. Even though changes to the nation's name, declarations of independence, and adopting a truly "new" (as opposed to revised) constitution are apparently off the table, Chen's agenda includes changes that would indigenize the ROC constitution on Taiwan and has included a truly "new" constitution, which is something that newly independent states adopt (although ongoing states sometimes do too). Chen's second inaugural declared that constitutional reengineering would help make Taiwan a "normal" and "complete" country-terms that resonate with the idea of resolving Taiwan's ambiguously not-quite-state status.

In addition, the Chen administration has insisted that referenda and constitutional reform are human rights of the people of Taiwan and means for deepening Taiwan's democracy. Such assertions continue a now-venerable strategy Taiwan's leaders have used to enhance Taiwan's international status: invoking global norms of human rights and democratic governance to augment the state or state-like international stature of an entity that honors and implements them.

PRC-Taiwan Tensions. Military conflict between the PRC and Taiwan is unlikely but not impossible in the foreseeable future. For now, the cross-Strait military balance and the U.S.'s substantial military superiority are sufficient to deter aggressive measures by China to change the status quo. Leaders and constituencies on both sides of the Strait appear still to find the status quo tolerable and not warranting dangerous, sudden moves to alter it. China appears willing to continue to rely upon its long-term strategy, which is to trust that the means to secure peaceful reunification on acceptable terms will eventually follow from Taiwan's deepening economic dependence on the PRC, China's increasing military capability, Beijing's ongoing success in isolating Taiwan diplomatically and, perhaps, Taiwan residents' lessening aversion to ties with a reforming and developing mainland. On the Taiwan side, there appears to be a widely held sense that the PRC authorities are likely to tolerate many of the moves by Taiwan's leaders that China officially denounces as unacceptable, thus giving Taiwan considerable space and security.

Still, dangers loom. Many on Taiwan, especially the pan-Greens, appear confident that China will do nothing if Taiwan makes still more moves toward formal independence or takes other steps that to Beijing would endanger the status quo. This optimism may be misplaced and therefore dangerous, but pessimism could bring perils as well. If Taiwanese believe that pushing further toward formal independence were the only possible means of securing continued autonomy in the face of the PRC's rising power and leverage, then they might well pursue such a strategy even though it could substantially increase the risk of conflict and might not be likely to succeed.

Finally, significant domestic political difficulties on either side of the Strait might beget crises in cross-Strait relations. That this dangerous and common pattern in international relations might recur in PRC-Taiwan relations seems plausible in light of the sharp and protracted discord in Taiwan over the election, and the anxiety over how Chen will construe his victory and implement his platform. In addition, simmering problems on the mainland, such as economic inequality, regime corruption, and peasant/worker discontent, could alter China's positions and behavior on the Taiwan question in a destabilizing and dangerous direction.


Jacques deLisle is professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and director of FPRI's Asia Program.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Foreign Policy Research Institute, A Catalyst for Ideas, www.fpri.org .


© Copyright 2002-2007 AFAR