Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 22

In the days leading up to the U.S. presidential election, Taiwan, like the rest of the world, was focused on the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry. But Taiwan’s media gave relatively little attention to the candidates’ merits, unilateralism versus internationalism, the war in Iraq, the North Korean nuclear crisis, or even America’s involvement in mediating Taiwan’s relationship to the mainland. Rather, the U.S. election became yet another battleground in the intense war for voter support between Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its pan-green allies, and the pan-blue forces of KMT chairman Lien Chan and People First Party (PFP) chairman James Soong.

Prior to John Kerry’s concession on November 3, Taiwan’s newspapers were full of statements by opinion leaders, from President Chen to James Soong, assuring people that regardless of the election’s outcome, U.S. policy toward Taiwan would undergo no major changes. Taiwan has traditionally enjoyed closer relations with Republican administrations – especially the current one – and could be expected to desire Bush’s re-election. But many on the island felt comforted by Kerry’s statement in an October interview with Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily that China’s poor performance as sovereign of Hong Kong indicated that the “one country, two systems” framework was not a viable answer to the Taiwan question. This statement helped to counter the impression in Taiwan that a Kerry administration would tend to favor China. Kerry’s off-the-cuff endorsement of “one country, two systems” in a debate last winter and the Democratic Party’s failure to mention support of the Taiwan Relations Act in its party platform this summer, helped create this fear – but the October statement allowed Taiwanese officials to say publicly that there was nothing to fear from a Kerry presidency. [1]

Taiwan’s representative in Washington, David Lee, sounded a single note of caution, however, saying that although America’s stance toward Taiwan would not change drastically if Kerry won, there might be some differences in personality or viewpoint with officials in an incoming Democratic administration, which could affect policy somewhat. [2]

This generally favorable opinion of the Democratic challenger stood in contrast to the disillusionment with the Bush administration that had grown in Taiwan over the last year. It began with the very public warning against a referendum from President Bush himself in December 2003, continued with the U.S. government’s slowness in congratulating President Chen on his (disputed) election victory in March, and was compounded by pressure and criticism of Taiwan’s willingness to defend itself as related to the arms acquisition bill under debate in Taiwan’s legislature; this culminated in Secretary of State Powell’s responses to certain questions in two interviews in Beijing just before the election.

On October 25, Secretary Powell told CNN International, “We want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all sides are seeking.” [3]The statement appeared to announce that “reunification” was now the goal of U.S. policy instead of the more neutral “resolution,” which disturbed politicians of all stripes in Taiwan. Secretary Powell also spoke of “reunification” in an interview with Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, stating rather strongly (but in line with existing U.S. policy): “Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation and that remains our policy, our firm policy.” [4]The remarks so upset Taipei, that foreign minister Chen Tan Sun told the legislature that he had considered recalling David Lee in protest, deciding against such action only after Lee assured him that the remarks did not signify a shift in American policy, an assertion backed up by queries to and subsequent remarks from the State Department. [5] Despite this less positive trend of the past 11 months, President Chen was publicly optimistic that relations would flourish under either a Republican or Democratic White House. [6]

The government maintained its hopeful tone after the election. President Chen put Taiwan squarely in the red camp of American politics, telling Bush, “Under your leadership in the past four years, the United States has striven to safeguard human rights and democracy, and to curb the expansion of destructive weapons by pledging to stand against terrorism, which is an effort to ensure the world’s safety and stability.” [7] Amid rising speculation that the U.S. will push harder in the next four years for improvement in cross-Strait relations, Presidential Office secretary general Su Tseng-chang declared that Chen is willing to work together with the United States to promote the common values and ideals of democracy, human rights, and regional stability, including seeking dialogue with China. [8] In a post-election interview with Time magazine, Chen mixed provocative and conciliatory statements, reaffirming Taiwan’s independence and sovereignty, but saying that his government will take “whatever actions are needed to improve cross-strait relations and to ensure permanent peace across the strait.” [9] Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Kau pledged that his ministry would increase communication with the U.S., especially with regard to Taiwan’s pending constitutional re-engineering. [10]

Many pan-green legislators were quick to toe the party line, expressing confidence that the US-Taiwan relationship would continue a positive development based on mutual respect for democracy, human rights, and stability. DPP legislator Tsai Huang-liang added that President Bush’s strategy of containing a rising China would further ensure good relations between Taipei and Washington. [11]

Some in the DPP were candid enough to publicly admit or imply that Taiwan bore some of the responsibility for the recent deterioration in Taiwan-US ties. After issuing the standard statement that there would be no major changes in the Bush administration’s policy toward Taiwan, DPP Legislator Lin Cho-shui pointed out that a certain degree of balkanization exists in Taiwan’s foreign policy-making community, and urged the government to rationalize its decision-making process. [12] His colleague Hsiao Bi-khim called on the government to work harder to coordinate its activities and avoid springing unpleasant surprises on itself and on Washington. [13]

Perhaps representing a more pessimistic outlook, scholar Lai I-chung of Taiwan Thinktank warned that U.S. statements and policy must be watched carefully, and that the tension in the relationship is not due solely to President Chen’s election-year politics. [14] Lai suggested that Taipei should alter its strategy by trying to develop a relationship with Washington that is independent of the Taiwan-US-China triangle. Moreover, Taiwan should work harder to be identified with America’s important domestic issues, such as combating terrorism and opening and developing China’s economy, and in this way win broader support in Congress and in the administration. [15] Similarly, DPP legislator Trong Chai urged his government to work more closely with Congress, especially with members of the Congressional and Senate Taiwan Caucuses, to counter China’s rising influence on Capitol Hill. [16]

Despite this mild hand-wringing among politicians and scholars, businessmen reacted well to Bush’s re-election, predicting that the certainty and stability implied by a continuing administration (more than the merits of one candidate over the other) would equate to a stable commercial environment, with obvious benefits for Taiwanese enterprises. [17]

While the Chen administration and pan-green camp were mainly optimistic about Bush’s victory, the blue camp perceived a dark cloud, arguing that Powell’s statements amounted to a U.S. warning to President Chen to discontinue his provocative rhetoric. [18] KMT legislator and former foreign minister John Chang agreed that Bush’s re-election would not lead to major policy changes, but he opined that American methods and attitudes toward Taiwan will not be as friendly as they had been during Bush’s first term. [19] Independent legislator Sisy Chen, a fierce critic of President Chen, warned that the new administration will not tolerate any “Taiwan independence activities,” and that if Taipei abuses the goodwill of American right-wing politicians, the result for Taiwan will be even worse than if Kerry had won. [20] More pointedly, Su Chi, former chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council and current head of the national security division of the KMT’s National Policy Foundation urged Chen Shui-bian to better “manage” certain people, including former President Lee Teng-hui and vice president Annette Lu, who sometimes make controversial statements, and senior presidential advisor Koo Kuan-min, who in October purchased a full page advertisement in The Washington Post and The New York Times criticizing the United States’ adherence to a one-China policy. Finally, KMT legislative whip Huang Teh-fu warned Chen not to repeat his attempts to break through the “red line” for cross-Strait relations that President Bush drew last December.

Politicians and editorialists also used noted that John Kerry conceded the presidency to George Bush on the same day that Lien Chan, anticipating an unfavorable decision from Taiwan’s High Court, questioned the court’s independence, repeated his accusation that Chen had won the presidency in March through unlawful actions, and denounced the president with what some considered to be threatening language. [21] (The next day the court dismissed one of two lawsuits brought by the blue camp against President Chen challenging the legitimacy of his presidency.) Many in Taiwan had viewed the U.S. election as something of a model, though an imperfect one to be sure. President Chen called on Taiwan’s media to learn from the prudent election coverage by their American colleagues. [22] The Taiwan Daily praised the courage of Kerry and his supporters in admitting defeat and noted the absence of irresponsible statements and accusations from Democrats, imploring Lien Chan to take a lesson from this behavior. Taiwan Solidarity Union chairman Huang Chu-wen echoed this call. [23]

On the other hand, the United Daily News published a story detailing efforts by some Kerry partisans to keep the fight alive and refuse to acknowledge Bush as president, while the China Times noted that Bush’s strategy of dividing the electorate to conquer his political foes is similar to Chen Shui-bian’s. In another article, the China Times used the example of Kerry’s behavior to criticize both the blue and green camps for failing to even attempt to heal the divisions wrought by the March election, and the Taiwan Daily lamented that the lesson it prescribed for Lien may not sink in. While Kerry sought to soothe his supporters and reach out to Bush with the patriotic appeal that even after a hard-fought election, “the next morning we all wake up as Americans,” this sentiment is not currently applicable to Taiwan. Rather, illustrating a divide that penetrates all aspects of society, people there wake up each morning and consider themselves to be either “Taiwanese” or “Chinese.” [24]


1. Yang Shen-ju, “Joseph Wu: Regardless of Who Enters the White House, Difficulties Supporting Taiwan Independence,” United Daily News, November 3, 2004.

2. “Lee Ta-wei: No Matter Who Wins the Presidency, No Big Difference in U.S. Cross-Strait Policy,” China Times, November 3, 2004.

3. “Interview with Mike Chinoy of CNN International TV,” U.S. Department of State, October 25, 2004, .

4. “Interview with Anthony Yuen of Phoenix TV,” U.S. Department of State, October 25, 2004, .

5. Lee Hsin-fang, “Disturbed by Powell’s Statements, Government Considered Recalling Lee Ta-wei,” Liberty Times, November 3, 2004.

6. Fan Cheng-hsiang, “It Doesn’t Matter Who Wins U.S. Election; A-bian: No Big Changes in U.S. Cross-Strait Policy,” Liberty Times, November 3, 2004.

7. “Presidential Office Convenes Press Conference Regarding the American Presidential Election,” Office of the President, November 4, 2004; Wang Chung-ming, “Chen congratulates Bush on win,”, November 5, 2004.

8. “Presidential Office Convenes Press Conference Regarding the American Presidential Election,” Office of the President, November 4, 2004.

9. “Strait Talk,” Time Asia, November 15, 2004 (Vol. 164, No. 20).

10. Wang Ping-yu, “U.S. President Bush Reelected,” Liberty Times, November 5, 2004.

11. “DPP Expects Strengthening of U.S.-Taiwan Ties in Bush’s Second Term,” Central News Agency, November 4, 2004.

12. Cheng Jen-wen, “DPP Legislators Call for Foreign Policy Coordination,” China Times, November 4, 2004.

13. Ibid.

14. Central News Agency, November 4, 2004.

15. Ibid.

16. “Tsai Tung-jung Promotes American Congressional Friends of Taiwan,” Taiwan Daily, November 3, 2004.

17. Wang Pei-hua, Kao Chia-ho, Lee Ching-hui, “Bush Reelected, Many Benefits for Taiwan Business,” Liberty Times, November 4, 2004.

18. Huang Kuo-liang, “Taiwan Should Not Even Consider Taking Advantage of Bush,” United Daily News, November 4, 2004.

19. Chiou Hui-chun, “Make Amends with Bush,” China Times, November 4, 2004.

20. “DPP Expects Strengthening of U.S.-Taiwan Ties in Bush’s Second Term,” Central News Agency, November 4, 2004.

21. For differing interpretations in English of Lien’s comments, see “Calm Urged Prior to Court Ruling on Election Lawsuit,” Central News Agency, November 3, 2004; “President Laments Undemocratic Remarks by Rival,” Central News Agency, November 3, 2004; Jewel Huang, “Murder Chen if he wins election suit, Lien says,” Taipei Times, November 4, 2004; and “High Court to Return Verdict on Disputed Presidential Vote,” China Post, November 4, 2004.

22. Liu Pin-chieh, “President Chen on U.S. Election: ‘American Media Learned a Lesson,'” United Daily News, November 4, 2004.

23. Wang Ping-yu, “U.S. President Bush Reelected,” Liberty Times, November 5, 2004.

24. “American Dream and Chinese Dream,” Taiwan Daily, November 5, 2004.