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Democratic Taiwan versus "One China"

By Prof. Chen Wen-yen, President, Formosan Association for Public Affairs

Washington, 22 April 2000

If you listened carefully to recent statements made by U.S. policy makers, you would hear one message about the U.S. “one-China policy” – democracy in Taiwan has changed the issue dramatically.

Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) put it forthrightly in a March 29th speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “The Taiwan issue is fraught with ambiguity. Congress, however, is fond of simple truths. The simple truth is that the people of Taiwan, with whom we have traded, worked, studied and lived for 50 years have developed a free, democratic and prosperous society worthy of emulation and respect. This society stands in sharp contrast to that of the Mainland with which, for better or worse, we must work to develop a positive relationship.”

In a major speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center on 30 March 2000, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) acknowledged that Taiwan was “a very different place than it was in 1972” when the Shanghai Communique laid out the “cornerstone of American policy on the question of Taiwan.” Stated Kerry forcefully, “Let me be clear: the United States will never accept a rollback of democracy and freedom in Taiwan.”

Forty House of Representatives’ Members sent a letter to Chen Shui-bian on 10 April 2000 congratulating him on his election “as President and the people of Taiwan for their historic vote to strengthen democracy in Taiwan.” Addressing the cross-strait issue, the Members wrote, “Taiwan should not be compelled to accept Beijing’s ‘one country, two systems’ formulation that presupposes the final results of any negotiations and is not in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people.”

American Institute in Taiwan’s Chair Richard Bush also gave a speech at CSIS on the same day as Senator Murkowski that was an important marker for the Clinton Administration. Bush noted that, given Taiwan’s democratic development, fundamental issues concerning Taiwan’s future must “be shaped with public views in mind” and “time will be needed to build a broad consensus and to fashion approaches that command a majority.”

“All political forces on Taiwan,” Bush continued, “agree that the people of the island should have a say in those choices.” Then Bush added that the Administration agrees that its own one-China policy also must allow for the Taiwanese people’s voice, noting, “President Clinton has said that the Taiwan Strait issue should be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan.”

Lest the implications be missed by China, Bush made them clear to Chinese officials at the conference, stating, “Beijing should understand the larger message of these elections, that Taiwan’s democratization has transformed the cross-Strait equation in a rather profound way. Taiwan’s willingness to move forward on cross-Strait relations is no longer a function of the views of Taiwan’s top leaders; it is also a function of the views of the public at large, the press, members of the legislature, and the leadership of the opposition parties. The people of the island themselves will have to be convinced that any arrangements reached in cross-Strait dialogue are in their fundamental interests.”

Bush then laid out six elements of U.S. policy concerning Taiwan, with clear emphasis on the democratic process in Taiwan. “Taken together,” Bush stated, “these policy elements are designed to foster an environment in the Taiwan Strait region that is conducive to our fundamental interests in peace and stability and are therefore good for the PRC and Taiwan as well.”

Bush’s first three policy elements repeated past statements: a one-China policy as defined by the three communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act; peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait issue; and no mediator role for the U.S.

Bush then concluded with these three policy statements:

  1. “We understand that any arrangements between Beijing and Taipei should be on a mutually acceptable basis, and not be imposed on one side by the other. How specifically to define the “one-China” principle and how concretely to realize it are best left to the two sides of the Strait on a mutually acceptable basis."
  2. We understand that because Taiwan is a democracy, any arrangements between the two sides ultimately have to be acceptable to the Taiwan public.
  3. We are willing to support any outcome voluntarily agreed to by both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

Bush’s stress on “mutually acceptable” arrangements that are not imposed “on one side by the other” parallels Chen Shui-bian’s insistence that “one-China” be considered as an issue, not as a principle defined by China.

“If the one-China principle means that Taiwan is part of the P.R.C., or that Taiwan is a province of the P.R.C., then never mind that [ I ] couldn’t accept it, the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people also couldn’t accept it,” Chen told the Asian Wall Street Journal on 4/11.

“Therefore, the principles for talks or negotiations must be founded on certain common beliefs. But at the moment there aren’t any. That is why I have suggested that the one-China principle be a topic for discussion, but the outcome shouldn’t be decided ahead of time, or discussion precluded.”

Chen also has picked up on Clinton’s statement concerning “the assent of the people of Taiwan.” In the AWSJ interview, Chen stated, “This sentence of Clinton’s is extremely important. Clearly, according to all the opinion polls, Taiwanese people will not accept being a province of China, or the one country, two systems formula, or becoming a second Hong Kong. If the cross-strait problem is to be resolved with the consent of the Taiwanese people as Clinton said, then any effort to force Taiwanese people to accept the one-China principle is a very serious subject.”

Congress and Richard Bush couldn’t agree more. There may be those in the U.S. State Department who still don’t accept the policy echoes converging here. But the echoes are getting louder. You can be sure that Messrs. Al Gore and George W. Bush are listening. Are Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji?