Taiwan’s 2008 Presidential Candidates: Resolving the Cross-Strait Imbroglio?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 13

The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) choice of Frank Hsieh (Hsieh Chang-ting) as its candidate for Taiwan’s 2008 presidential election immediately brought cheers from outside analysts hoping for a reduction in cross-Strait tensions. In a typical commentary, The Economist magazine noted that Hsieh “wants better relations with China.” Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian, by contrast, “favoured…a tougher stance towards China” (The Economist, May 10). Based on Hsieh’s track record, some observers have concluded that China might even be willing to restart cross-Strait talks under a Hsieh presidency (The Straits Times, May 19). Given that the other major candidate is the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou—whose platform upholds his party’s traditional commitments to the one-China principle and to eventual unification with the mainland—this suggests the possibility of an improvement in cross-Strait relations when the embattled Chen yields the presidency to either of these possible successors. Nevertheless, while such an expectation may be valid, it is perhaps oversimplified due to a number of additional factors—ranging from identity and party politics to corruption charges—that may alter the landscape of the presidential race.

First, there is a degree of uncertainty surrounding the Hsieh-Ma match-up stemming from the suspicions of wrongdoing shrouding both men. Ma was indicted for corruption in February 2007 and has been charged with misusing over $300,000 of public funds while he served as the mayor of Taipei. Ma responded to the scandal by resigning from his post as KMT chairman, though he did not give up his presidential candidacy. The negative publicity stemming from Ma’s indictment has eaten into his opinion poll numbers, which a few months ago indicated he had a sizeable lead over his potential rivals. Meanwhile, Hsieh has been linked to high-level corruption during the construction of the mass transit system in Kaohsiung while he was serving as the city’s mayor. The case is still under investigation, so it is possible that evidence against Hsieh could surface in the months before the election. Increased suspicion that he took bribes might damage his chances of being elected to the point where the DPP seeks to replace him as their nominee. It is therefore not inconceivable that one of these two men might be forced to drop out of the race.

Regarding the element of identity politics, pan-Green politicians have found it difficult to succeed at the national level without gaining the approval of the staunch pro-Taiwan constituency that insists on eventual independence. In the run-up to the election in March 2008, Hsieh will come under intense temptation to employ the tactics for which Chen became well-known: making bold anti-China or pro-independence statements to energize pan-Green voters, hoping for the additional benefit of drawing an angry response from China. If this approach proves popular, Ma will have to follow suit by shifting his positions to the left. Beijing will definitely be listening closely, and will likely hear rhetoric unpleasant to Chinese ears from both candidates. Beijing seems to have learned by now that it is counterproductive to threaten or scold Taiwan during the island’s electoral campaigns. If what the Chinese hear, however, plays to their fears that Hsieh is another Chen or that Ma will compromise on unification in order to be elected, this will have negative consequences for cross-Strait relations under the new president.

More importantly, with the presidential campaign yet to reach its heated climax, it is already possible to anticipate the coming Chinese disillusionment with either a Hsieh or Ma presidency.

A Not-So-Great Divide

The differences between Hsieh, 61, and Chen are easily overdrawn. Hsieh’s positions on Taiwan’s proper political status vis-à-vis China and the international community have many similarities with Chen’s. Hsieh, like Chen, began his political career as one of the defense lawyers for the anti-KMT political activists indicted over the Kaohsiung Incident of 1980. He was the DPP’s vice-presidential candidate and the running mate of famous dissident Peng Ming-min in the 1996 election won by then-KMT member Lee Teng-hui. Hsieh served as premier of Taiwan and as mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city and a pan-Green stronghold.

To be sure, in his approach toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hsieh has been more pragmatic and cautious than Chen. One of his slogans when he served as premier was “coexistence and reconciliation.” He favors lifting the restrictions on direct air and sea travel between Taiwan and China. Hsieh has even drawn criticism from other senior DPP leaders for allegedly being too receptive to the one-China principle.

China, nevertheless, would find much of Hsieh’s agenda repugnant, and consequently it is not clear that Beijing would accept him as a negotiating partner. Hsieh supported the change in a basic DPP position on cross-Strait relations. Originally, the party’s platform stated that its eventual goal was independence for Taiwan. In 2000, DPP leaders shifted to the line that it was not necessary for Taiwan to formally declare independence. Hsieh said at the time, “As we perceive Taiwan as already an independent country, independence is a de facto reality that nobody can deny or change” (China News Agency, September 6, 2000).

Hsieh said in June 2007 that China and Taiwan “must conduct negotiations under the principles of equality” and respect for Taiwan’s “national dignity” (Taipei Times,

June 4). The requirement that China treat Taipei as an equal and as a national rather than a provincial government has been a perennial sticking point in cross-Strait relations. These sensitivities make bilateral talks difficult to implement, because the very procedures and mechanics of diplomacy are full of implications about the respective status of either side. China would resist Hsieh’s demands for equality and national dignity precisely because China’s goal is to force Taiwan to accept that it is not equal and not a nation.

Hsieh advocates on record the removal of language in the Republic of China (ROC) constitution that upholds the notion that Taiwan is a part of China; he maintains that Taiwan is at present a “sovereign, independent country;” and he promotes the view that Taiwan should “become a normal country”—meaning the rest of the world should recognize that Taiwan is a separate country from China, and specifically it should be known as “Taiwan” rather than the “Republic of China” (Taiwan News, May 7).

Ma as the Answer?

There is no question that the election of the 56-year-old Ma as president would bring great relief to the Chinese after eight years of the Chen administration. The way would seemingly be cleared for deeper cross-Strait economic relations, a resumption of cross-Strait talks and the scaling back, if not cessation, of many policies that have irritated China. Born in Hong Kong of Hunanese parents, Ma has sought to balance his “Mainlander” origins by emphasizing his upbringing in Taiwan and by speaking in the Minnan (Taiwanese) dialect at certain public gatherings. He has cultivated a dispassionate and relatively neutral style, considered by some a strength and by others a weakness.

Ma says he supports the “five no’s” previously laid out (and, some would argue, later violated) by Chen: not declaring formal independence; not changing the name “Republic of China”; not changing the ROC constitution to reflect the idea that Taiwan and China are separate countries; not holding a referendum on independence from China; and not abolishing the National Unification Council. He adds an additional “five do’s.” These include resuming semi-official cross-Strait negotiations on the basis of the alleged “1992 consensus,” which is that talks can proceed as long as both sides accept that there is one “China,” with each side allowed its own interpretation of what “China” means. Beijing has publicly affirmed that it accepts the terms of the alleged consensus; it is Chen’s refusal to recognize the one-China principle as a starting point that prevented cross-Strait talks during his presidency. With Ma as president, this obstacle would disappear. Ma also favors working toward cross-Strait confidence-building measures and an economic common market with China, allowing direct travel and transportation between Taiwan and the mainland and increasing cultural and educational exchanges.

It should be noted, however, that Ma’s willingness and ability to accommodate China are bounded. Ma could be considered a moderate within the pan-Blue camp. He was, for example, more vocal than other KMT leaders in his opposition to China’s March 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which authorized the Chinese government to employ “non-peaceful means” to bring about cross-Strait unification if other means proved unsuccessful or if “incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur.” When Chen won re-election in 2004 by a tiny margin hours after an assassination attempt, Ma did not join the KMT members who publicly accused Chen of staging the shooting and who challenged the result of the election.

In June 2007, Ma said, “If the two sides of the Strait are to resume negotiations, reach any peace agreement or negotiate any kind of military or mutual trust mechanism, I will first request that China withdraw the missiles deployed along its southeast coast because we are not willing to conduct peace negotiations while we are threatened by missiles” (Taipei Times, June 5). The demand that China “withdraw” its missiles (which are already on PRC territory) as a precondition to stabilizing cross-Strait relations is strongly reminiscent of Chen Shui-bian’s long-standing demand. It also implicitly challenges China’s “right” to use force against Taiwan, which Beijing has closely linked with its position that the Chinese central government has sovereignty over Taiwan. Delivering what Ma asks for would be a substantial concession on the part of China, difficult to obtain in any case but especially if Beijing is put on the defensive by what it views as “provincial” authorities overstepping their proper bounds.

Although Ma maintains that he and his party stand against Taiwan’s independence and for eventual unification with China, in February 2006 the KMT purchased an advertisement in Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper in which Ma acknowledged that “independence is an option for the Taiwanese people” (Taipei Times, January 28). This reportedly caused great consternation among many KMT leaders, such as former chairman and presidential candidate Lien Chan, but it demonstrated that Ma feels compelled to compromise the pan-Blue agenda to accommodate Taiwanese nationalism. As president, he would continually face this kind of domestic pressure.

Recent changes in China’s cross-Strait policy should not be overlooked in a prognostication of bilateral relations under the next presidential administration. On balance, they appear conducive to improvement. The Anti-Secession Law was broadly condemned as a negative development, and rightly so. If this was, however, the culmination of several years of seething Chinese anger and frustration over perceived Taiwan independence drift, it was a comparatively mild outburst. Soon afterward, the visits of KMT leader Lien Chan and People’s First Party leader James Soong to China, where both received flattering treatment from the CCP leadership, suggested that Chinese leaders had found an alternative to military coercion to influence Taiwanese politics. By reaching out to the unification-leaning opposition parties, Beijing realized that it could marginalize the influence of the pan-Green coalition. At the same time, Hu Jintao suggested that cross-Strait talks could occur if both sides agreed to the formulation “two shores, one China,” an apparent concession to Taiwan’s demands that the one China principle should not equate “China” with the PRC and should not imply that Taipei is subordinate to Beijing. China is certainly not prepared to capitulate on these issues, but appears willing to consider laying them aside until talks get underway.

The prospect of a new era in cross-Strait relations leads to an oft-debated question about Beijing’s “timetable” for recovering Taiwan: is there a firm deadline, or are China’s leaders willing to wait indefinitely, provided Taipei does not force their hand by taking further steps toward de jure independence? If Hu and other high-level CCP officials merely want to keep the Taiwan issue quiet while they concentrate on economic development and cultivate a favorable international image, a Hsieh or Ma presidency is likely to provide them with more political cover than the Chen presidency has done. On the other hand, if Hu’s government decides it is not satisfied with the more modest goal of preventing further moves toward de jure independence and wants to see what it would consider progress on the Taiwan issue, Beijing would likely discover that Hsieh is not as moderate nor Ma is as Chinese as Beijing had hoped.

There is reason to look for improved cross-Strait relations beginning in 2008, but these expectations should be kept circumspect. The Chinese might quickly conclude that Hsieh’s program is a longer-term, less directly confrontational version of Chen’s program. Ma would be more sympathetic to China’s agenda, but he is constrained by a Taiwan polity that is proud of its distinctive political and economic achievements and resentful of Chinese threats. The real goal—a peaceful, mutually agreed and permanent settlement of the dissatisfaction across the Strait—still appears out of reach through Taiwan’s next presidency.