Jonathan Adams and Colum Murphy
Far Eastern Economic Review, October 2007
It’s a sunny Friday morning in mid-September and You Si-kun is full of friendly banter as he tucks into his congee at a Taipei hotel. But as the then-chairman of Taiwan’s ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party expounds his views, it becomes clear why he is the embodiment of China’s worst fears about Taiwan. “Taiwanese people want to be master of their own fate,” says the 59-year-old Mr. You. “Independence and building a new nation is our goal.”
On Mr. You’s “to do” list, which he mooted in an amendment for adoption at his party’s Sept. 30 congress: Changing Taiwan’s official name from the “Republic of China” to “Taiwan,” enacting a new constitution, and formally announcing to the world that Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country. Ambitious goals, to be sure. But they happen to chart Taiwan on a course careening toward China’s so-called “red lines”—the crossing of which Beijing views as possible grounds for war.
It’s perhaps reassuring, then, that Mr. You’s fortunes—and those of his proposed resolution—changed dramatically after that breakfast meeting. Days later, prosecutors indicted him on corruption charges. Then the DPP rejected his resolution in favor of a toned-down version. In response, Mr. You resigned from the party chairmanship on Sept. 28.
Mr. You’s loss may have been a small victory for moderation in Taiwan’s emotionally charged politics. But the surging Taiwan pride he represents has hardly been defused. In fact, the resolution that the DPP finally passed on Sept. 30 still commits it in principle—albeit without giving a timetable—to writing a new constitution and using referenda to affirm Taiwan's sovereignty.
One such referendum is already in the works—part of the party’s controversial bid to seek United Nations membership under the name “Taiwan.” The coming months will see the DPP gather signatures to put that issue on the ballot; the opposition KMT has initiated its own version that de-emphasizes the use of “Taiwan.” But China has warned that such referenda could trigger the use of “nonpeaceful” measures against the island. And in a Sept. 11 speech, U.S. diplomat Thomas Christensen voiced unprecedented harsh criticism of the DPP's referendum proposal, saying it was a “needless provocation that [is] patently not in the best interests of the Taiwan people or of the United States.”
Most analysts expect the U.N. drive to raise tensions in the coming months, then quietly fade away. A high bar for approval—50% of the eligible electorate—makes it unlikely the measure will pass. But at the heart of the current tensions are conflicting assumptions that have troubling longer term implications. Namely, each of the three parties concerned—Taiwan, China and the United States—clings to its own dangerous delusions. That adds up to the potential for miscalculation with grave results, particularly if Taiwan’s pro-independence party overplays its hand.
Mr. You and some colleagues cherish the impossible dream of creating a fully independent, new nation with all the trappings of formal statehood, including U.N. membership. This they see as the final act in the decades-long struggle to scrap the remains of the KMT regime that oppressed the island with a reign of terror after World War II. That regime may be gone, but its formal name, flag and territorial claims awkwardly remain. However, the reality is that two great powers—China and the U.S.—will oppose any such bid for the foreseeable future. Moreover, so will a majority of Taiwanese people themselves.
Some in China, meanwhile, hold to the fantasy that Taiwan will inevitably come back to the fold. Much of Beijing’s confidence is based on economics: closer integration between the mainland and Taiwan will lead to political union. Yet the evidence to date would seem to refute that. The two sides have never been so economically close, yet more politically distant. And neither China’s threats, nor international pressure, nor—more recently—goodies for targeted groups in Taiwan have blunted the island’s push for greater recognition.
For its part, the U.S. nurtures its own illusion—that there exists a static cross-Strait “status quo” that it can continue to referee. The truth is that between China’s rapid military buildup on one side, and rising Taiwan pride on the other, the situation in the Strait has never been more in flux.
One island; three fantasies. Those delusions aren’t likely to cause serious conflict in the near term. But in the years to come, dealing with Taiwan’s growing assertiveness and thirst for recognition without resort to war will require a strong dose of realism on all sides.
If the UN referendum spat has a déjà vu feel to it, it’s because the 2004 presidential election was also accompanied by a referendum—Taiwan’s first. Then, Taiwan’s voters were asked about increasing military capacities and ties with the mainland. Both measures failed to get enough votes to pass. But that referendum also drew harsh criticism from Beijing and an admonition from U.S. President George W. Bush.
Four years later, all the trends that created those tensions are back with a vengeance. For one, a growing number of people on the island are identifying themselves first and foremost as Taiwanese—thanks in part to efforts by the DPP to strengthen a sense of “Taiwanese-ness.”
Data from the Election Study Center at Taipei’s National Chengchi University (NCCU) indicate that in December of last year—the latest such statistic available—the number of islanders who consider themselves “Taiwanese” only (not “Chinese”) was 44.1%, or more than double the 20.2% recorded in the same month in 1994, and up from 36.9% in June 2000, shortly after President Chen Shui-bian took office.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s legal, military and diplomatic campaign to politically isolate Taiwan and deter its “splittists” continues apace. With the passage of the Antisecession Law in March 2005 Beijing signaled its willingness, if necessary, to use military force against Taiwan. Under that law, Beijing codified its long-held stance that it would employ “nonpeaceful” means should Taiwan formalize its independence.
Since 2000, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have further dwindled from 30 to 24 small, low-profile countries as China aggressively woos countries away with generous aid and investment. In that time, China’s short-range missile arsenal targeting Taiwan has grown from about 200 to 1,000, according to Mr. Chen—a trend he never hesitates to publicly highlight (The latest Pentagon estimate is about 900 such missiles.) Taiwan has responded by developing its own missile—tested earlier this year—able to hit targets on the mainland, according to defense analysts.
Perhaps the biggest difference from 2004 can be seen in the U.S. attitude toward Taiwan, as exhibited in the Christensen speech. Never before has the U.S. so bluntly warned its island ally that military support is not a given. The reason, say analysts: Since 2004, the U.S. has become even more bogged down in Iraq, and a possible confrontation with Iran looms. The last thing Washington wants is any trouble in East Asia—particularly any that could pit it against a Chinese military growing more lethal by the year.
So why is Taiwan pushing forward a doomed U.N. bid that has only raised tensions with China and alienated its strongest ally? Not surprisingly, many observers in Taiwan see in the U.N. bid a political strategy by Mr. Chen to whip up support ahead of the March presidential elections. Campaigns that focus on emotional issues of Taiwanese identity favor the DPP, as the 2000 and 2004 elections showed.
KMT officials, in particular, dismiss the referendum as a futile exercise. “President Chen, the DPP and some rednecks are whistling in the dark,” says Su Chi, a KMT legislator and foreign-policy adviser to its presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou. Mr. Su and others in the KMT see the bid as an effort to detract attention away from the DPP government’s poor economic performance. Taiwan’s GDP growth may be respectable for a postindustrial economy (4.68% last year), and exports remain strong. But real incomes have stagnated for years, fueling the widespread perception that the island’s economy has flat-lined.
That would seem to leave an opening for the KMT to run a strong “it’s the economy, stupid” campaign. Instead, the U.N. referendum has grabbed attention and left the KMT struggling to compete on national identity, where it’s at a distinct disadvantage. Even the party acknowledges that its version of the U.N. bid referendum is largely a political tactic in response to the DPP. Failure to follow Mr. Chen’s lead on this issue could see the party branded as anti-Taiwan and antidemocratic, says Mr. Su. To that extent, the DPP's initiative is already serving its intended purpose.
Still, it would be unwise to dismiss the Taiwan’s U.N. bid entirely as an electoral gimmick. Behind the banners, the marches and the slogans and the slick, multilingual advertising campaigns, there is a genuine, deep-rooted sense of frustration among the Taiwanese people about being something less than a country.
To understand some of the emotions fueling the U.N. bid, go to the prison on Green Island, off Taiwan’s southeast coast. For four decades before the lifting of martial law in 1987, the KMT jailed Taiwanese accused of political crimes here. A wave of anticommunist hysteria saw at least 140,000 sent to die before firing squads or endure decades in crowded cells.
Chen Meng-ho, a former Green Island prisoner, ambles down a rocky seaside path, then stops in front of a cliff and takes off his hat. He pays respects at the final resting ground of the “13th squadron”—prisoners, including a close friend of Mr. Chen’s, who died on the island and were buried beneath the cliff because they had no relatives in Taiwan to claim their bodies. “Every single time I come here I have the feeling of sadness,” says the 76-year-old Mr. Chen. “I don’t feel angry anymore ... but I’d still like to speak out and say what happened here so that type of terror will never happen again.”
The DPP government is turning the old prison into a cultural heritage site; it arranged Mr. Chen's trip with journalists to the island. Many Taiwanese accuse the government of opening such painful wounds from the island’s past for political gain. That’s partly true. In the island’s no-holds-barred political culture, anything that can be used as ammunition, is.
But this past is also the key to understanding present-day politics. Many DPP leaders are former prisoners: Vice President Annette Lu, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, and even President Chen, who served a one-year term for libel. As young activists and defense lawyers, that generation fought to democratize the island. By contrast, many still-prominent KMT politicians were part of the authoritarian machine.
The DPP emerged from that dissident movement and eventually took power in 2000. So far it has proven better at activism and protests than at governing. (In recent years, Mr. Chen's government has been rocked by one corruption scandal after another; its approval ratings have dipped below 20%.) Now, the very same people who helped bring down autocrats in Taipei are facing off against autocrats in Beijing, whose “red lines” are boxing in the young democracy.
The sense of a revolution on hold is galling enough for DPP true believers. But it’s compounded by Beijing’s concerted global effort to shrink Taiwan’s international space. According to Lo Chih-cheng, a political science professor at Taipei’s Soochow University who is close to the DPP government, China’s strategy is clear: “As China becomes more confident in isolating Taiwan internationally, it believes that Taiwan will be pushed into a corner and have nowhere to turn but to Beijing and ask its permission to become part of the international community,” he says.
That means freezing Taiwan out of regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asia Nations and its various add-ons, and preventing the island’s leadership from attending summits of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, which Taiwan joined formally as a member “economy” in 1991 under the name “Chinese Taipei.” At the World Health Organization, Chinese pressure has prevented Taiwan from gaining observer status, for which statehood is not a requirement.
The result is what some have called an “oppression complex,” which fuels extremist calls for bolder action to counter China. “A lot of people [in the DPP] say ‘Why should we limit ourselves?’” says Hsiao Bi-khim, a prominent DPP legislator and foreign-policy adviser to DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh. “Our leaders will have to balance hard-line views within the party with international constraints on our efforts.”
Those constraints come first and foremost from China. It claims Taiwan as its territory and has long threatened war if the island seeks to formalize its de facto independence. The current U.N. bid may not quite do that, but Beijing fears it’s just a prelude. “Next time they may use a referendum to decide whether Taiwan should be totally separate from mainland China,” says Chu Shulong, a foreign affairs expert at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
China’s claim is rarely challenged, although its assertion that Taiwan is and has always been an inalienable part of China is a creative interpretation of history at best. The island wasn’t incorporated into the Qing Empire until the late 17th century; successive imperial courts regarded it as a savage wilderness, pirate haven, and as one emperor put it, “a place beyond the seas ... of no consequence to us.”
The claim is linked with China’s own cult of victimhood. The island was ceded to Japan in 1895 and Chinese nationalists view its return as the final act of their own fantasy: restoring China to its imagined Qing-era grandeur and thereby leaving behind once and for all a “century of humiliation” by foreigners.
For many years Beijing backed its claim with belligerent talk and military posturing; in 1996 it fired missiles into the waters off Taiwan in a particularly sharp fit of pique. In recent years, it has taken a more subtle tack; wielding the carrot in addition to the stick, by courting Taiwan's opposition, farmers and business groups.
Beijing has successfully outsourced much of the work of reining in Mr. Chen and the DPP to the U.S. Mr. Christensen flatly denies that Beijing and Washington coordinate Taiwan policy, saying “it just does not happen.” But observers of cross-Strait developments say the effect is just that. Washington’s desire for stability in the region far outweighs any sympathy for the frustrations of a fellow democracy. And so the two powers have found common cause in trying to put the brakes on Taiwan’s U.N. bid.
Too bad the DPP isn’t listening. “We are on a roll and I don’t think [anyone] can stop this—even the KMT has jumped on the bandwagon,” says Ms. Hsiao. So if China and U.S. warnings can’t stop such pushes for recognition, how can future cross-Strait conflict be averted?
A call for cool heads
Beijing and Washington argue that the current U.N. bid is “unnecessary.” They’re right, at least in the bigger picture. But as long as the emotionally charged issue of national identity works to its benefit, the DPP can be expected to play the independence card in this and subsequent elections.
And therein lies the key danger. Current tensions over the U.N. bid are likely just a tempest in a teapot. But it’s not hard to imagine, years down the road, a DPP-backed referendum that more explicitly affirms the island’s distinct sovereignty. Such a vote might be dangerously ambiguous. Taiwan could calculate that it was within bounds, while Beijing would interpret the vote as a formal, legally binding declaration of independence—and so, a casus belli.
“The future depends not only on what Taipei is doing, but also what the politics are in Beijing at the time,” says Steve Tsang, head of the Taiwan Studies Program at Oxford University. “And that’s a big imponderable. "In principle, China’s ‘red line’ is crystal clear, but in reality, it isn’t.”
It’s possible the DPP might drop its referendum gambits on its own if they backfire at the polls. And a KMT-dominated legislature could amend the referendum law to make such ploys more difficult. But neither of those domestic “fixes” is guaranteed.
For Beijing, the key will be to avoid overreacting. The fact is, plebiscites that will put the island on a collision course with China are not likely to find much of a market in Taiwan, even if they make it to the ballot. So far, there’s no indication that the groundswell of Taiwan pride has translated into support for an all-out independence push. According to data from the NCCU, the
number of Taiwanese supporting immediate independence has bounced between 3% and 7% since Mr. Chen took office. (The latest data from December 2006, was 5.5%.)
Beyond that, the best way to blunt the appeal of extremists like Mr. You would be to address Taiwan’s legitimate desire for more international space. That would reassure Taiwanese that their diplomatic oxygen isn’t running out. Beijing should realize that its aim of isolating Taiwan in the international arena only gives fuel to the island’s hardliners. Rather, it should work out a compromise with the island on its participation in key international organizations such as the WHO. A formula that stops short of recognizing Taiwan as a state can surely be found; after all, Taiwan successfully joined the World Trade Organization.
That give and take won’t be easy, particularly in the current climate. “At least some in China understand that they’re not winning hearts and minds on Taiwan by being hard-line on the international space issue,” said Richard Bush, an expert in cross-Strait relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “But as long as there’s a ‘deep green’ [hard-line pro-independence] domestic agenda in Taiwan, the P.R.C. isn’t going to back down.” Case in point: talks on allowing the Olympic torch to pass through Taiwan en route to Beijing ended unresolved last month. Taiwan’s top China policy-maker Chen Ming-tong said the UN push helped derail those torch talks, as well as other unofficial cross-strait negotiations on a range of issues.
Washington therefore has a key role in maintaining Taiwan’s international breathing room. In cases where formal statehood is not an explicit requirement, it, the European Union and other democratic allies should help secure Taiwan’s participation. But it would be naïve to think that will happen soon. The EU reportedly expressed its strong rejection to the UN bid to Taiwan in private. And Washington’s relations with Taipei have never been worse; it’s in no mood now to go to bat for its island ally on WHO participation or other issues.
Such measures will have to wait until May 2008 at the earliest, when a new president takes power in Taiwan. It’s assumed Beijing would prefer to deal with KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou, who accepts the “one China” principle. Ma leads in many early polls, though analysts dismiss those as unreliable, and note that the DPP traditionally runs stronger national campaigns. But even if the DPP candidate Frank Hsieh does win, many expect better cross-strait (and Taiwan-US) relations, as Hsieh is considered a moderate.
All three sides would do well to put aside their illusions and seize that expected window of opportunity. The alternative is a worsening of today’s vicious cycle in which Beijing’s bullying and Taiwan’s push for recognition continuously feed off each other.
Even in the best of scenarios, though, the hopes which Taiwan’s DPP is raising with its U.N. bid—like those raised by Mr. You—are almost certain to be dashed. At a rally in Kaohsiung supporting that bid, those aspirations were clear. “We have to tell the world we are not a part of China,” said 22-year-old Hsu Li-ta, as he marched down an elevated highway with crowds of others. “I’m not Chinese; I’m Taiwanese. We’re a country, so why can’t we enter the U.N.? That’s really ridiculous, and makes me feel upset and depressed.”
That, unfortunately, is part of the “sadness of being Taiwanese,” as one of the island’s politicians once put it. And the only cure—short of what would certainly be a disastrous war—is cold, hard pragmatism.