Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 15

In the May 6 issue of China Brief, John Tkacik called attention to Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, and asked quite bluntly: What does it mean for the United States? I am astonished at the conclusion he appears to reach, namely, that if the Kuomintang-People First Party (KMT-PFP) ticket should win in 2004, its victory wou ld be detrimental to U.S. national interests.

Mr. Tkacik mentioned three specific factors that seemed especially worrying: KMT candidate Dr. Lien Chan’s platform of “one China, different interpretations;” Lien’s March 30 statement regarding a “journey of peace” to the mainland if elected; and certain remarks made by Douglas Paal–the director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)–that were “apparently sympathetic to those opposing President Chen Shui-bian.”

First of all, it is important to make clear how the 23 million people of Taiwan look at the future of cross-Strait relations, regardless of their political affiliation, provincial origin or economic status.

Mr. Tkacik cited assorted public opinion polls by various local newspapers to prove that “there is no consensus in Taiwan on the nation’s future.” He is obviously unaware of the continuous polling that has been commissioned by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) of the Executive Yuan. This polling has been carried out at regular intervals, sometimes even monthly, for almost ten years. Since the MAC is chaired by Miss Tsai Ing-wen, who is being promoted as President Chen’s running mate next year by the powerful “New Current” faction of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the statistics released by MAC should be above suspicion.

Strangely, MAC has stopped releasing new poll data since January of 2003, although the charts and figures from 1994 up to December 10, 2002, are available to all at its official website (www.mac.gov.tw). The key question posed in these samplings–and it is one that always reflects Taiwan’s demographic profile–is a simple one: “How do you view the future of cross-Strait relations?”

The respondents, numbering around 1,000 each time, are given a range of seven choices. The choices are: (1) “independence asap,” (2) “status quo now/independence later,” (3) “status quo indefinitely,” (4) “status quo now/decision later,” (5) “status quo now/unification later,” (6) “unification asap,” and (7) “don’t know.” For statistical purposes, MAC groups (1) and (2) together as “pro-independence,” (3) and (4) as “status quo”, and (5) and (6) as “pro-unification.” Space does not permit the reproduction of these full-color charts, which are titled by MAC “Unification or independence?” However, readers are invited to view them at: http://www.mag.gov.tw/english/english/pos/p9112e/htm as well as 9112e_2.gif and 9112e_a.gif.

A comparison of the first MAC-commissioned poll, from February 1994, with the most recent, that of December 2002, indicates that public opinion in Taiwan regarding cross-Strait relations has remained remarkably stable through these years. If anything, the “status quo” group has grown, from 44.5 percent in 1994 to 54.8 percent in 2002. This growth has come more at the expense of the pro-unification group than the pro-independence camp.

Table 1: Opinion Polls on Future Relation with China

  • ChoiceNo.
    • (1)
    • (2)
    • (3)
    • (4)
    • (5)
    • (6)
    • (7)
  • Feb ’94
    • 4.4%
    • 8 %
    • 12.3%
    • 32.2%
    • 23.3%
    • 4.1%
    • 15.7%
  • Dec ’02
    • 5.9%
    • 10%
    • 21.5%
    • 33.3%
    • 10.3%
    • 4.2%
    • 14.8%

The first two charts available from MAC’s website, dramatically entitled “unification or independence?”, provide a clear cut answer to the central question. They demonstrate that the people of Taiwan overwhelmingly prefer the status quo to either independence or unification, whether immediately or sometime in the future. Some may consider “status quo” as only a temporary state of affairs, but in this case, the choices (3) and (4) together do constitute a consensus in the strictest meaning of the word.

Using this as a starting point, let me examine the concerns expressed by Mr. Tkacik when he implied that the Lien-Soong ticket–should it win on March 20, 2004–would seek a “political modus vivendi” with Beijing that might be detrimental to Washington’s interests in the region.

First, about the formula “one China, different interpretations.” This refers to the consensus reached in 1992 between SEF (Straits Exchange Foundation) and ARATS(SEF’s mainland counterpart-Association for the Relationship Across the Straits), the organizations set up by both sides to deal with cross-Strait relations. The consensus led to the first Koo-Wang meeting of 1993 in Singapore, a promising beginning that was later torpedoed by ex-president Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell. This 1995 visit, and Lee’s “two states” theory of 1999, provoked Beijing into freezing all such quasi-official contacts.

In a nutshell, “one China, different interpretations” means that, although the word “China” implies the People’s Republic to those on the mainland, to the people on Taiwan it refers to the Republic of China, nothing more and nothing less. This “creative ambiguity” dovetails nicely with the idea of “status quo,” the preferred choice of an absolute majority of people in Taiwan, including the one million or so who live and work in China.

Having agreed to disagree on what constitutes “one China,” both sides were then free to settle down and discuss pragmatic solutions to more pressing problems, such as certification of legal documents, joint crime control, even exchange of information over SARS. On the other hand, President Chen Shui-bian, despite all the right noises he made during three years in office, has steadfastly refused even to concede that the 1992 consensus ever existed. That was the real roadblock preventing the reopening of contacts.

I can find no explanation for President Chen’s behavior on a point so obviously tilted in Taiwan’s favor other than pressure from “fundamentalists” of the TIM school, who fear any additional contact with the mainland, official or unofficial. Mr. Tkacik’s logic was even more baffling. I find it difficult to understand how “one China, different interpretations” could, by any stretch of imagination, run against the national interests of the United States.

A second issue that allegedly worried Mr. Tkacik was Dr. Lien’s recent statement that he would, if elected, visit mainland China on a “journey of peace.” However, it has been proven that the KMT candidate was merely repeating what incumbent President Chen has openly declared, not just once, but twelve times in the last four years, as is shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Chen’s Statements on “Journey of Peace” to China(with source):

  • April 20, 1999, National Press Club, Washington, DC (UDN, April 21, 1999, p. 2)
  • September 20, 1999, DPP Conference, Taipei (UDN, September 21, 1999, p. 3)
  • December 1, 1999, meeting with international media, Taipei (Liberty Times, December 2, 1999, p. 4)
  • January 29, 2000, campaign address, Taipei (UDN, January 30, 2000, p. 3)
  • March 18, 2000, interview given in Taipei (Time magazine, January 27, 2000, article by Terry McCarthy)
  • March 18, 2000, victory address, Taipei (UDN, March 19, 2000, p. 3)
  • May 19, 2000, interview with Formosa TV (UDN, May 20, 2000, p. 2)
  • April 25, 2001, interview with Hong Kong media (UDN, April 28, 2001)
  • November 16, 2001, radio interview with Central BS (ROC President’s Office website)
  • May 9, 2002, at Ta-tan Island, Quemoy (China Times, May 10, 2002, p. 1)
  • May 10, 2002, with media executives, Taitung (UDN, May 11, 2002, p.3)
  • June 4, 2002, meeting with China scholars, Taipei (ROC President’s Office website)

Note: UDN denotes the United Daily News of Taipei, while Central BS is Central Broadcasting Station, the government-owned station aimed at mainland listeners.

The third charge, leveled by Mr. Tkacik with respect to statements made by the director of AIT Taipei, should best be left to Mr. Douglas Paal himself to answer. As a retired person, I have not had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Paal. That gives me, however, all the more reason to question Mr. Tkacik’s contention that AIT, which is an embassy in everything but name, was pushing “Taiwan’s politicians toward direct links [with the mainland] without regard for the national security or sovereignty concerns of Taiwan’s elected leaders.”

The question of the “three links” was always of primary concern to MAC and figured prominently in all its surveys. The last chart from the MAC website is entitled “Should we open up direct transportation links with mainland China?” It clearly shows that, through the years, the number of those who approve of this idea has remained above the 70 percent mark. The highest approval level, 83.2 percent, was recorded in March of 2001, a year after President Chen took office. The latest available figure, from December of 2002, still shows an approval rating of 74.5 percent; that is in addition to another 7.8 percent who wanted “unconditional” links. The AIT director was not only reflecting U.S. policy, he was also in tune with majority opinion in Taiwan!

Mr. Paal seemed to have aroused the ire of TIM extremists again in June, when Taipei newspapers reported that he had conveyed to President Chen Washington’s “concern” over the DPP administration’s plan for holding plebiscites together with, or prior to, the presidential poll next year. But that is another story altogether.

Mr. Paal said only the following: “If Taiwan continues to view the mainland through the prism of economic threat, it is in danger of isolating itself and getting out of tomorrow’s deals.” It is obvious that when Mr. Tkacik wrote that “Taiwan’s political leaders viewed this [Parr’s remarks] as a swipe at the national security concerns over ‘direct links’ with China,” he was unaware of public sentiments tested and released by MAC. Anybody can safely deduct who these “political leaders” are, and also where they stand on Taiwan’s political spectrum.

Americans must not underestimate the social and political transformation that fifty years of democratization has brought about in Taiwan. The people of Taiwan are mature enough now to realize what they want–namely, to participate in the economic development of China–and what they cannot accept–namely, to live under communism and one-party rule. No popularly elected leader, now or in the future, can afford to oppose this irresistible trend.

I-cheng Loh served as director of the Chinese Information Service in New York from 1963 to 1979. After ambassadorial stints in Guatemala and South Africa, he retired in 2000 as Taiwan’s ambassador-at-large.