Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 9

Could Taiwan’s voters elect a pro-unification candidate in 2004? Can the challenger, Kuomintang chairman Lien Chan, put together an electoral consensus of ethnic mainlanders, Hakkas and ethnic Taiwanese investors in China that will begin the process of moving Taiwan into the embrace of the People’s Republic of China? The polls indicate it could be a fifty-fifty proposition, especially if the campaign’s focus is the economy–not national identity. Washington should begin to consider its substantial strategic stake in Taiwan, and rethink the message that its diplomats in Taipei are sending Taiwan’s public.

On March 20, 2004, Taiwan’s voters will go to the polls to elect their president. Already, Taiwan’s national identity is emerging as a “hot-button” issue to compete with Taiwan’s stagnant economy as the focus of the campaign. Incumbent President Chen says Taiwan is separate from China as a nation state in its own right, while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, or “Nationalist”) Party’s chairman Lien Chan is already campaigning on a “one China, different interpretations” platform.

KMT Chairman Lien has already announced his likely running mate, James Soong of the KMT-splinter People First Party (PFP). Both men are committed to a closer relationship–or even a quick political “confederation”–with Beijing. [1] President Chen’s vocally pro-independence vice president, Annette Hsiu-lien Lu, has signaled she will step aside to give President Chen the option of a new running-mate who could draw additional voters to the DPP ticket. [2]

The central question of the 2004 election will be “national identity” (guojia rentong), along with the ancillary issue of “direct links” across the Strait with China. How Taiwan’s voters act on this will be an early indicator of Taiwan’s direction in the 21st century. Chen wants democratic Taiwan to consolidate its separate identity from the communist People’s Republic. Lien-Soong, on the other hand, want a political modus vivendi with Beijing. A growing number of people on Taiwan, either because of ethnic roots in mainland China or expanding investments there, will vote for Lien-Soong on that basis alone, and Dr. Lien is playing to that audience. On March 30, Lien vowed he would travel to China on a “journey of peace” immediately if he is elected.

But there is no consensus in Taiwan on the nation’s future. On April 17, a major poll showed that a 72 percent majority “oppose direct transportation links with China due to national security considerations,” and that the majority of those polled approved of President Chen’s policy of “one country on each side” of the Taiwan Strait. [3] Yet, in March, another poll showed 37 percent against renaming their country “Taiwan”, while 17 percent supported it and 20 percent had no opinion. An astounding 24 percent refused to be interviewed. [4] In late January, another survey showed 42 percent wanted a permanent split with China, 37 percent wanted unification, eight percent favored the status quo, and 13 percent had no opinion. [5] Sifting through these results, it appears that a majority in Taiwan hope to delay unification as long as possible–permanently perhaps–while a substantial minority, around 37 percent, do not. Perhaps “identity” will override a desire for a rejuvenated economy and give President Chen a second term in office. But it might not. Even the DPP polls show a very tight race for President Chen next March. [6]

Last summer, Georgetown University professor Nancy Bernkopf Tucker wondered whether the prospect of unification should bother U.S. leaders. [7] She concluded that America’s greatest interest in the Taiwan Strait was “peace,” and that as long as Taiwan’s anschluss with China is peaceful, there is nothing that America could, or should, do about it. Despite Professor Tucker’s resignation, however, Washington policy-makers should not ignore America’s important strategic interests in keeping Taiwan well beyond the control of the People’s Republic of China.

First, keep “island-Asia” out of the hands of “mainland-Asia”. The United States is the globe’s preeminent naval power, and security of the sea lanes is essential to its national security. Taiwan sits astride the major sea lanes between the West Coast of the United States and East Asia and Japan’s sea lanes to the Middle East. In the year ending August 15, 2002, a total of 259,086 civilian aircraft transited the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), while 246,015 commercial ships transited the Taiwan Strait and the East Taiwan maritime route. [8] During the same period, Chinese Air Force aircraft made 1379 sorties over the Taiwan Strait (an average of nearly four sorties a day), while the PLA Navy conducted 6825 sorties through the Strait and five off eastern Taiwan. [9] America’s alliances with nations in the island chain along the Asian mainland provide the surveillance capabilities essential to protecting U.S. naval forces in the Pacific. Taiwan is a link in that “island-Asia” chain. Without it, the back door to the Pacific is opened for China’s large and modern surface and submarine fleets. The U.S. Pacific Command will benefit from early warning coverage of Chinese military deployments that will be available from advanced radar stations in Taiwan. [10] American naval planners closely monitor Chinese ship movements through Japanese and Taiwan waters reportedly because they “consider Taiwan as part of the ‘First Island Chain’ of defense.” [11]

Second, the United States has a robust intelligence sharing relationship with Taiwan. Clearly, a Taiwan regime which acknowledges Beijing’s suzerainty would break that relationship. Of course, the details are secret. There have been sporadic reports in the Taiwan press about intelligence cooperation between the United States and Taiwan that has been in place for over twenty years. It includes a “major signals intelligence facility in cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) on Taipei’s suburban Yangmingshan Mountain” that is identified as a “data processing center.” [12] Separately, in December 2000, a secret Pentagon report recommended that the U.S. should improve its understanding of how both sides of the Taiwan Strait view the military balance. In November 2000, two separate Pentagon delegations made secret visits to Taiwan, including one that visited Quemoy. [13]

Third, Taiwan is one of the top importers of U.S. defense equipment. American defense industries benefit from a pay-as-you-go relationship with Taiwan, which has been America’s second best customer (after Saudi Arabia) for defense equipment and services every year for the past ten years. That includes 2002, when Taiwan’s defense procurement slumped. [14] In April 2001, President George W. Bush approved an arms package worth over US$20 billion for Taiwan, an amount that will surely take over a decade to digest. The increasing Chinese military threat to Taiwan made it easier for the Bush administration to justify providing Taiwan with ever higher levels of technology. As such, Taiwan has become an important partner in financing American defense research and development. There is every indication that the United States would welcome Taiwan’s participation in the next-generation “Joint Strike Fighter” program as a development partner. [15] In the event of Taiwan’s political union with China, whatever the form, how would Taiwan handle the sensitive technology used in these systems?

Fourth, Taiwan possesses advanced technology infrastructure. Taiwan has perhaps the world’s most advanced semiconductor fabrication infrastructure, and has the capacity to produce defense critical electronics components. Much of this has been declared defense-critical in the United States and U.S. policy prohibits its export to China. [16]

Washington’s overarching concern with Beijing must be that China views the United States as its chief “traditional threat.” A February article in China’s official world affairs journal, Liaowang, makes the point. “Hegemonism continues to exist–only with a new manifestation. The new manifestation is: The United States uses the fight against terrorism as an opportunity to pursue its hegemonic strategy and hegemonism is carried out under the cover of antiterrorism. In particular, it is all the more necessary to contend or even struggle with the United States when its policy or action obviously carries an intention of serving its hegemonic strategy.” [17]

China’s dogmatic opposition to U.S. “hegemony” will remain central to its national security strategy for the indefinite future whether or not Taiwan ever unites with the PRC. China’s military expansion into the South China Sea and its insistent claims to sovereignty over its million square miles of seabed are good indicators of China’s long-term intentions in the region. China’s suspicious response to America’s post 9-11 military presence in Central Asia was another indicator that China’s strategic gaze is set toward the West and that she is leery of interlopers. China seems poised to become a “great power competitor” to the United States through the 21st century.

Some believe America’s only interest in Taiwan is to ensure that the “Taiwan issue is resolved peacefully.” But some American officials seem to be nudging Taiwan toward China. The Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, for example, has publicly warned that “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” [18]. The director also bemoaned the lack of cross-strait transportation links. [19] Taiwan’s political leaders viewed this as a swipe at their national security concerns over “direct links” with China. But they also viewed the AIT director’s remarks as a message from Washington–one that is apparently sympathetic to those opposing President Chen. [20]

It may be in America’s interests to ensure that the Taiwan Strait remains peaceful. But it is not in America’s interests to push Taiwan’s politicians toward direct links without regard for the national security or sovereignty concerns of Taiwan’s elected leaders. Still less is it appropriate for American diplomats to be seen as taking sides in the controversy. Washington policy makers should consider the impact of their messages on America’s broader strategic interests in Taiwan. The best message may be no message at all.

1. Lien Chan tried to put a “confederation” plan in his 2000 presidential platform, but was talked out of it by then president Lee Teng-hui. See Meng Ronghua, “Lian Zhan won’t include Confederation Plan in Mainland Policy,” Central Daily News, Taipei, January 22, 2000. Available on the Internet at http://www.cdn.com.tw/daily/2000/01/22/text/890122c2.htm.

2. “Will [Chen Shui-]Bian and [Annette Lu Hsiu-]Lian run again? Annette says she won’t,” (no author cited), China Times Express, Taipei, April 21, 2003; available on the internet at http://news.chinatimes.com/Chinatimes/newslist/newslist-content/0,3546,130501+132003042100583,00.html.

3. Sandy Huang, “CROSS-STRAIT TIES: Surveys over the past year indicate that most Taiwanese favor the president’s tough talk on China, but are cautious about opening direct links,” Taipei Times, April 17, 2003; http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2003/04/17/202383.

4. “49 Percent Opposed to Republic of Taiwan,” (no author cited), China Post, March 17, 2003.

5. See Taiwan Quick Take; Taipei Times Internet Edition, January 24, 2003, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2003/01/24/192308.

6. One poll shows Lien-Soong with a heavy lead over Chen-Lu. See: (no author cited) “Lian-Song in huge lead over Chen-Lu, 51 percent vs. 26 percent,” China Times internet edition, April 19, 2003; http://news.chinatimes.com/Chinatimes/newslist/newslist-content/0,3546,110501+112003041900012,00.html. Another poll indicates a dead even split: see He Rongxin, Xiao Xucui, “Presidential Vote Poll, Blue and Green each say it will win,” China Times internet edition, April 3, 2003; http://news.chinatimes.com/Chinatimes/newslist/newslist-content/0,3546,110502+112003040300051,00.html.

7. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, “If Taiwan Chooses Unification, Should the United States Care?” The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2002, 25:3 pp. 15-28. Available on the internet at http://www.twq.com/02summer/tucker.pdf.

8. Briefing for members of the Trilateral Conference by the Ministry of National Defense, Taiwan, August 26, 2002. (Powerpoint presentation, page 7 of 16).

9. Ibid. Totals do not include fishing vessels or domestic Taiwanese aircraft.

10. Zhang Lifang, “Early Warning Radar can see 3000 km into Mainland,” Taipei Central Daily News, April 19, 2000. Also see Wang Jionghua, “Long Range Radar attenuation can give early detection of guided missiles,” Taipei Central Daily News, April 19, 2000. See an unsigned article the same day in Taipei’s China Times: “PAVE PAWS early warning radar, core equipment to US Anti-missile warning.” See also 2000.06.07, Lu Zhaolong, US-Taiwan Arms Sales Meeting held here this week,” Taipei, China Times, June 7, 2000.

11. Lyu Zhaolong, “PRC Warship penetrates ‘First Island Chain’ in exploratory move,” China Times internet edition, October 31, 2002.

12. Wu Chongtao, “Janes Defense Magazine: Taiwan-US carry out electronic intelligence collection against the PRC,” Taipei China Times, January 29, 2001. See also: Brian Hsu, “Taiwan and U.S. jointly spying on China: report,” Taipei Times, January 30, 2001, <http://www.taipeitimes.com/news/2001/01/30/story/0000071597>.

13. See Wu Chongtao, “Post-May 20, Taiwan-US military exchanges clearly ‘warm up,'” Taipei, China Times, December 20, 2000.

14. See <http://www.dsca.osd.mil/PressReleases/36-b/36b_index.htm> and also, <http://www.dsca.osd.mil/programs/Comptroller/2001_FACTS/default.htm> for 1950-2001 FMS figures.

15. Private conversations with U.S. officials. Also see: Sofia Wu, “Plan to Lease AV8b Fighters Never Got off the Ground: ROC Air Force,” Taiwan Central News Agency, March 11, 2002.

16. For an extended analysis of this problem see John J. Tkacik, Jr., “Strategic Risks for East Asia in Economic Integration with China,” A Heritage Foundation WebMemo #171, November 12, 2002; available on the internet at http://www.heritage.org/Research/AsiaandthePacific/WM171.cfm.

17. Liu Jianfei, “Grasp Relation Between Antiterrorism and Anti-Hegemonism,” Beijing Liaowang (Outlook) Number 8, February 24, 2003, pp 54-56. At; English translation by Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) at FBIS-CHI-2003-0307.

18. See “An Update On U.S.-Taiwan Economic Relations,” by Douglas H. Paal, Director, American Institute in Taiwan, at the American Chamber of Commerce Monthly Luncheon on September 18, 2002. Available at the AmCham website, document PR-02-49.

19. “AIT concerned over lack of direct transport services to PRC,” (no author cited), China Post, September 24, 2002.

20. Paal made comments to the KMT Mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou. See Chang Yun-Ping, “Ma, Paal lament state of cross-strait ties,” Taipei Times internet edition, December 13, 2002, at

John Tkacik is a retired Foreign Service Officer and President of China Business Intelligence, an Alexandria, Virginia consluting firm.