TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Taiwan's election on Saturday
is a confrontation
with both China and the U.S.



Jonathan Power

March 17, 2004

LONDON - In the short eight years of full democracy in Taiwan Saturday's election will be the third. In each election the candidate that Beijing did not like won office. This time Beijing has made it clear that it doesn't want to see President Chen Shui-bian re-elected. By the workings of normal electoral arithmetic he shouldn't be. In the last election he won on a minority vote because the opposition- the successor party to Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang- was divided. This time there is no division and until recently many assumed Chen would lose. But once again China has been waving its fist and the chances are that Chen has a good chance of gaining a second term.

The more Taiwan becomes democratic, the more the older generation of Chinese die off (a good many of whom crossed the strait as part of the fleeing troops of the Kuomintang defeated by the communists in China's civil war) and the more Taiwan advances with its formidable educational system and the technology that system produces, the more the new voters ask themselves why should their country kowtow before the dictatorship of Beijing.

In February, 1972, President Richard Nixon, seeking to end years of enmity between the U.S. and China, made one of the greatest mistakes of post World War 2 history. Signing the Shanghai Communiqué, the U.S. declared, "The U.S. acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China." Understandably these words have been cast in stone by Beijing. But if it were ever true in Taiwan it is certainly no longer true. ALL Chinese in Taiwan do NOT believe their country is part of China. And there's the rub.

For many, and perhaps even most Taiwanese, this is not just a question of semantics but also of principle and, not least, of history. Why should Taiwan forsake the cause of independence when it was only ruled in a very desultory manner by the Chinese from 1683 to 1895? For most Taiwanese this was simply colonialism, no different from what came before - the Spanish (who ruled for 17 years), the Dutch (38 years) - and after with the Japanese from 1895 to 1946, who were the first to control the entire island. Following the end of the Second World War came the occupation and rule of Chiang Kai-shek and, after his death, that of his son. In 1991 President Lee Teng-hui, of the Kuomintang party, renounced Taiwan's claim to be the true rulers of China.

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John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution has written in his book "Principles of Global Conflict" that the Taiwan/China conflict is "a major strategic accident waiting to happen". Of that there can be little doubt. China is not prepared to lose face by changing its policy. As Taiwan develops both economically and educationally the voices within seeking independence will grow. The question for the U.S. and Taiwan is how to manage this democratic transition.

Last November Chen upped the stakes by declaring that election time would also be the occasion for two referenda, one of which is on whether Taiwan should increase its military spending to counterbalance the growing number of missiles that Beijing is aiming at Taiwan. Beijing became exceedingly angry and only when the White House sent an envoy to Taipei to persuade Chen to stop needling Beijing and President George W. Bush went out of his way to assure Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, during his visit to Washington in December, that no change in Washington's "One China" policy was contemplated did Beijing start to calm down. Even so it remains agitated about Chen's favorable chance of being re-elected and about the somewhat milder referenda he is determined to go ahead with. Another crisis between the two is certainly on the cards. Last time President Bill Clinton had to deploy two aircraft-carriers in a show of force to cool tempers on both sides.

While there can be no question that the pushy democrats in Taiwan have both history and right on their side, they also have to be pragmatic. With two (three if Europe is included) great powers against it how can Taiwan maneuver to keep its freedom?

Taiwan has to play a long game. Time is Taiwan's friend. If Taiwan is changing fast so is China. China in ten or twenty years' time could be a democracy. In Hong Kong there is a great deal of agitation for full elections. Before very long people in China itself will be asking why they can't elect a president if the Taiwanese can. Then it is not inconceivable to imagine that a democratic China and a new generation could lose their obsession with incorporating Taiwan.



I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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