TAIWAN’S PRESIDENTIAL COUNTDOWN: WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE UNITED STATES?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 9

By John Tkacik

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]

WHAT DOES UNIFICATION MEAN FOR THE UNITED STATES?