Taiwan rejoining China? Not just yet
| By Philip Bowring
International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Hong Kong Beijing has scored a remarkable propaganda triumph with the visit to China by Lien Chan, a former vice president of Taiwan and head of the opposition Kuomintang. It was especially impressive given the sour Taiwanese response to China's recent enactment of an anti-secession law, and the solidarity that Japan and the United States have been showing on the question of Taiwan's strategic importance. Lien has been given the kind of high-profile reception, including a meeting with President Hu Jintao, that is normally accorded to a head of state.
Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, now finds himself on the defensive and is having to use the other opposition leader, James Soong, the mainland-born Kuomintang renegade who now heads his own People First Party, to carry a message to China this week.
Not too much should be read into all this, however. Cross-strait relations have had several peaks and troughs over the past 15 years without the fundamental issues changing significantly. Even China's economic advance and the depth of cross-strait business links have done little to bridge the political divide. The outlook is seldom as dangerous and seldom as hopeful as the headlines of the day suggest.
In this case, too, one ingredient has generally passed without notice in the outside world. On July 16 the Kuomintang will hold an election for its chairmanship. Lien had been expected not to run, having suffered two defeats in his bid for president, to make way for a younger man to carry the Kuomintang flag in the next election, scheduled for 2008. It was to have been a contest between the popular mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou, and the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Wang Jin-pyng. But there are suggestions that Lien will use his newly bolstered profile in an attempt to stay on. Wang has indicated he would support Lien if Lien so decides.
Even if that proves not to be the case, Lien seems to have been wanting to make a statement on his commitment to the One China principle before stepping down as a Kuomintang chief. There is a personal element to this - Lien made an emotional return to his birthplace, Xian - but it is also a reflection of the strength of pro-unification sentiments within the Kuomintang, which shares with the Communists respect for the Kuomintang's founder, Sun Yat-sen, and resentment at Japan's wartime occupation.
Most people in Taiwan, however, whatever their politics, do not have such emotional and kinship ties with the mainland. Opinion polls suggest that a small majority was in favor of Lien's visit. But it may also have increased antagonism between pro- and anti-unification forces. For many in the governing Democratic Progressive Party, Lien's visit showed that his heart lies with China, not with Taiwan. By contrast, Chen Shui-bian's and former President Lee Teng-hui's emotional commitment to Taiwan's identity sometimes takes precedence over prudent politics.
What Taiwanese voters will make of all this remains to be seen. Lien's visit has raised the emotional level at both political extremes, but the battle for votes is at the center. In so far as cross-strait questions influence elections, the issue is which party can best preserve the status quo, asserting Taiwan's de facto independence and liberal, democratic political system without threatening to cause war, alienating the United States or endangering commercial links with the mainland.
Although he singularly failed to mention such issues as military threats against Taiwan and the mainland's oppression of dissidents, in practical terms Lien gave away nothing - he was in no position to negotiate anything and the "peace" agreed with his hosts is so vague as to be meaningless. The pivot point for cross-strait relations remains the definition of One China.
Beijing maintains that there was a consensus in 1992 to support the principle of One China. Even many in the nominally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party will go along with some interpretations of that phrase. But Beijing continues to insist that One China means one state, the People's Republic of China, rather than (as with the two Koreas) a single nation temporarily divided into two states.
Until Beijing shifts its interpretation of One China or Taiwan loses its implicit U.S./Japan security umbrella, cross-strait political relations will probably continue to go round in rhetorical circles.