Cross-strait “war Talk” Mixes With Taiwan’s Presidential Politics

Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 16

On December 9, President George Bush singled out Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for a bluntly worded rebuke. Appearing at the White House with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Bush told reporters, “We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

While President Bush’s statement was not a change in fundamental U.S. policy, it nonetheless represented a shift away from the practice of holding Taipei and Beijing equally responsible for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. For the first time, a U.S. president laid the blame for deteriorating cross-strait relations squarely at the feet of Taiwan’s political leadership. How did we arrive at this startling departure?

International factors pulled the Bush Administration away from its previous evenhanded (or, some would argue, Taiwan-leaning) approach. Harsh statements from Beijing in November were designed to elicit a response from Washington to Taiwan’s “envelope pushing” behavior. Beijing saw Chen’s late October transit visit to the U.S. as evidence that America was unwilling to rein in an increasingly unruly Taiwanese president. Meanwhile, Bush Administration officials apparently concluded that continued Chinese cooperation on crucial issues, including North Korea, was more important than sheltering a Taiwan that appeared deaf to subtle messages. But the central character in this drama is Taiwan itself.

Taiwan’s current political debates are reactions to complex, contradictory trends. In the long run, Beijing seems well-situated to accomplish many of its goals. Taiwan’s economy is intertwined with China’s: China is Taiwan’s largest investment target and one of its top trading partners. According to Taiwan government statistics, 40 percent of its approved outward investment in 2001 went to China (including Hong Kong) and two-way trade across the Strait reached $30 billion.

While economic ties are binding Taiwan to the mainland, the military balance is shifting to the PRC. Beijing has been on an accelerated military modernization program for several years, and Taipei has not matched its investment. Thus, PRC leaders are confident that their ability to deter Taiwan from achieving or pursuing independence is growing.

Paradoxically, the long-term trends in Beijing’s favor make the immediate future more dangerous. Taiwan independence true-believers, who comprise less than 10 percent of Taiwan’s population, see the window of opportunity for achieving their goal closing. They believe Taiwan must act soon – before the island’s military is overtaken and its economy swallowed – if it is to attain independence. Many have pinned their hopes on 2008, believing the PRC will not risk its international reputation before the Beijing Olympics. These activists also hope to stimulate nationalism among Taiwanese, to strengthen their resistance to unification and counteract the effects of economic integration.

These trends are not new, but combined with the catalyst of electoral politics they may yet prove explosive. Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party, will stand for re-election on March 20, 2004. He faces Lien Chan, the former Nationalist Party (KMT) vice president whom he defeated in a three-way race in 2000 to become the island’s first opposition party president. Chen’s 39 percent vote share afforded only a weak electoral mandate, while opposition parties – the KMT and the People First Party (PFP, founded by Chen’s other opponent in the 2000 race, James Soong) – held a majority of seats in Taiwan’s legislature.

During the 2000 campaign and his first two years in office, Chen emphasized moderation. His first premier was a KMT military man who had served in KMT cabinets. His statements about cross-strait relations were conciliatory, and he sided with business against independence activists in a debate over whether to allow high-tech industry to move to the mainland.

Moderation did not win over Chen’s opponents. KMT legislators attacked his proposals and excoriated his cabinet ministers. PFP legislators joined their votes with the KMT, forming the “Pan-Blue Alliance.” Six months into his presidency, Pan-Blue legislators even considered recalling the president. Legislative elections at the end of 2001 increased the DPP’s seat share, but the Pan-Blue camp maintained its majority.

PRC leaders were even less willing to give Chen the benefit of the doubt. They were convinced that his new-found moderation was tactical, while Taiwan independence remained his real goal. Chen’s calls for improved relations fell on deaf ears, while any comment that could be interpreted as revealing his “true colors” was trumpeted in the PRC press.

By mid-2002, the need for a new strategy was evident. With neither the Pan-Blue nor the Beijing leadership displaying any interest in compromise, Chen’s presidency was faltering. To reenergize it, Chen looked to his base. In August, he said there were two countries in the Taiwan Strait, one on each side. The remark enraged Beijing, which saw it as a reiteration of former president Lee Teng-hui’s much-despised “two states theory.”

The “one state on each side” comment was the first in a series of moves aimed at galvanizing Chen’s reelection campaign. Next came the decision to push for a law authorizing national referenda. The concept of a referendum – which Chen describes as a basic democratic right – enjoys broad popularity, especially among Chen’s core supporters, who hope to use referenda to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty. Likewise, Chen’s next initiative – a proposal for a new constitution – also appealed to centrists while exciting the Taiwan independence crowd. Even moderates are ready to reform the institutions that have permitted four years of political stalemate.

In November, it seemed Chen’s strategy might be derailed when the legislature passed a referendum law that lacked the provisions Chen most wanted. Only in the event of an imminent military threat does the law allow the president to initiate a referendum. But Chen was not deterred, and immediately announced his intention to hold just such a referendum. This move apparently provoked President Bush’s stern warning.

To win reelection, Chen must defeat a united Pan-Blue ticket with Lien at the top and Soong in the vice-presidential position. To do so, he must mobilize the DPP loyalists and independence supporters who form his political base, while convincing mainstream voters that his policies will enhance, not diminish, Taiwan’s security. Squaring this circle will be difficult, but it will work if voters choose pride over fear, and believe the U.S. is behind Taiwan.

Taiwanese face a dilemma. They resent the indignities visited upon their country by an international community that refuses to recognize its statehood. But they also understand that Taiwan cannot change this situation on its own, because the PRC may respond to independence moves with armed force, and because Taiwan cannot compel the international community to choose Taipei over Beijing. Chen’s maneuvers are aimed at appealing to voters’ hope that assertive, self-confident expressions of Taiwan’s democratic self-government can enhance the island’s international position without provoking Beijing.

Chen’s calculations rely on two perceptions. The first is that the PRC is not serious about attacking Taiwan, which many Taiwanese believe. The second is that the U.S. is committed to Taiwan’s defense. There is strong statistical evidence to suggest that when Taiwanese have confidence in the U.S. security commitment, they are more willing to challenge the PRC. It is in this respect that President Bush’s rebuke could do the greatest harm to Chen’s reelection bid: By undermining Taiwan voters’ faith that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if the PRC attacks.

President Bush’s comments have not put Chen out of the running. He remains defiant, a pose many voters admire. To turn Bush’s remarks to its advantage, the Pan-Blue camp must find a response that makes its candidates look competent and responsible, not craven or timid. The weeks between Chen’s triumphant visit to New York in late October and Wen Jiabao’s rather elaborate reception in Washington this month may well prove to be the turning point in this election.

Shelley Rigger is the Brown Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson College. She is the author of two books on Taiwan politics, “Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy” and “From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.”