Cross-strait Relations In Taiwan’s Presidential Elections

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 6

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: “œWe’€™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 “œexert

[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 Taiwa™n’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 “œdeadline”

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


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


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


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.