Rockin the Boat

January 5th, 2004

By George Wehrfritz

North Korea isn't the only country able to vex both the United States and China these days. Indeed, it may be a fellow democracy and not the Hermit Kingdom that has America and the region most on edge in early 2004. Despite urgings from the White House, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian recently reiterated his pledge to hold a March "defensive referendum," meant to protest a Chinese military buildup targeting the island. The prospect has riled Beijing, and has many worried that this volatile corner of Asia could become a flash point yet again. Chen and his supporters are unrepentant. "That members of the international community at times accept China's argument that democracy could be provocative is very unfair to Taiwan," says Hsiao Bi-khim, foreign-affairs director of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.

It's tempting to dismiss Chen as a desperate politician in the fight of his political life. After all, he scheduled the referendum to coincide with his campaign for a second presidential term, intentionally poking Beijing in the eye to provoke a reaction that would garner him votes at home. Yet much more than campaign politics is at play: Taiwanese pride is welling, islanders perceive Beijing as the neighborhood bully and in recent years support for the one-China policy has all but collapsed. "A lot of taboos have been broken in the last 12 months," says a Western diplomat in Taipei, citing a new referendum law and bipartisan support for constitutional reform—initiatives that could further distance the mainland. "In the short term this is about Chen Shui-bian, but in the long run a whole complex of issues has emerged that is not going to go away."

Both major political camps on Taiwan have embraced populist agendas. The DPP-led "pan-green" alliance, hailed for pushing political reforms in the 1990s, is moving ahead to build what President Chen calls "a normal, complete and great democratic country." His Kuomintang-led rivals (the "pan-blues") have abandoned open advocacy of unification, a stance used for 38 years to justify martial law after Nationalist strongman Chiang Kai-shek led his forces into exile on the island in 1949. Pan-blue presidential hopeful Lien Chan recently followed the DPP's lead and endorsed sweeping constitutional reforms, and in November the party pushed through its version of a referendum law—the very legislation Chen has invoked to call for a vote to denounce China's missile buildup. In late December both parties sponsored separate resolutions calling on China to remove nearly 500 missiles targeting the island. The KMT "wants to show it has no [pro-unification] baggage," says Chu Yunhan, a political scientist at Academia Sinica in Taipei. "Taiwanese nationalism has become the dominant ideology."

The trend has redefined what is euphemistically termed the Taiwan Question. For starters, it belies the comforting but naive notion that China's economy will eventually become powerful enough to lure Taiwan peacefully back to the motherland. The reality: despite the estimated 450,000 Taiwanese who now live on the mainland to do business and the $60 billion to $100 billion they've already invested, democratization and budding nationalism back home are drawing the island away. China can respond flexibly—never Beijing's instinct on issues of sovereignty—by heeding Taiwan's call for air and shipping links, membership in international bodies like the World Health Organization and a reduction in military tension. The alternative is a crisis that risks devastating the Chinese economy, shattering stability in East Asia and triggering war with the United States. "They are caught in a bad dynamic," says Minxin Pei, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If [Beijing] does anything to show good will, it could be viewed as a sign of weakness and Taiwan could push further."

Whatever strategy it chooses, China will confront Taiwan's changing self-image, a trend dramatically illustrated in survey data from National Chengchi University's Election Study Center gathered since 1992. Since then, scholars have continuously tracked how Taiwan's people perceive themselves; over the past decade the number of those who call themselves "Taiwanese" has risen from 17.3 percent to 41.5 percent, roughly equal to the percentage who today select "both Taiwanese and Chinese." In contrast, pure "Chinese" identification has fallen from 26.2 to 9.9 percent. The surveys also show that Taiwanese orientation spikes whenever Beijing threatens the island, as it did with military exercises ahead of presidential elections in 1996 and 2000. "Actually, [Chinese leaders] have more influence on Taiwanese public opinion than they know," says center director Liu I-chou. "Usually they move it in the opposite direction than they hope to."

Political seasons in Taiwan and the United States foreshadow a testy few months ahead. U.S. President George W. Bush would obviously like to avoid a new foreign-policy crisis, and he needs cooperation from China on trade and North Korea, two potentially caustic issues. His fear is that the rhetoric coming out of Taipei could upset Beijing and undermine its relations with Washington, if not put the two on a collision course. Chen, who won office in a three-way contest with 39 percent of the vote in 2000, faces an even tougher challenge this time: his two opponents in the earlier race have set aside a bitter rivalry —to form the pan-blue ticket they hope will return the KMT to power. The latest polls suggest the race is a statistical dead heat.

Today the KMT finds itself burdened by its one-China legacy. Unification—cast in any terms, over any time frame—is a losing issue. In fact, Taiwan's political landscape is littered with fallen politicians who either embraced the vision or were branded "pro-Beijing" for having contacts or investments across the strait. Election watchers dub the phenomenon tongyi zisha, or "unification suicide." So dangerous is the malady that pan-blue vice presidential candidate James Soong, a mainland-born former KMT secretary-general who leads a splinter group called the People First Party, goes out of his way to avoid being tarred by the pro-China brush. His favorite slogan is "preserve the status quo," and when asked to articulate his vision for Taiwan's optimal future, he demurs, insisting that such things should be decided "in 2040, not 2004."

Soong's KMT running mate, Lien Chan, has positioned the ticket to appeal more directly to Taiwan's growing sense of nationhood. After he called the DPP's constitutional-reform plan "boring," popular support for it persuaded Lien to change tack. A month ago he unveiled a revision scheme of his own, stunning some of his supporters but winning plaudits from others who believe that the KMT must further "Taiwanize" to survive. One member of the party's standing committee reportedly even suggested changing the party's name to the Taiwan KMT. "This tells us," says Liu, "that if they didn't do something they would lose on the battlefield of Taiwan's identity."

In substantive terms the constitutional-reform debate is one-sided; the two contesting schemes are largely identical. Neither the pan-blues nor the pan-greens advocate dumping the name Republic of China or changing the flag, and both seek to streamline governance by strengthening the presidency and allowing plebiscites on key national issues. Inevitably, this would entail removing elements of law that link Taiwan to China, including references to Tibet and Mongolia and a midtier provincial government that Taiwan (as a single province) doesn't need. Says a young KMT scholar about constitutional reform: "I shouldn't say this, but the DPP has been using the issue brilliantly."

The main architect of Lien's constitutional-reform plan is Su Chi, a senior scholar at the KMT's National Policy Foundation. The scheme aims, he says, to woo an electorate "with a split personality" that's feeling its Taiwanese oats but wants to maintain the cross-strait status quo (the feeling of some 80 percent of the public, according to numerous surveys). "The struggle is to seize the middle ground. This is why the campaign is so heated," he says. To do so the KMT must embrace reform while playing down the conflict with China, he explains: "The DPP goes for the heart, and the KMT says, 'Let's not rock the boat'."

The DPP and its supporters put a different spin on it. As Lin Chia-lung, a government spokesman, sees things, the coming election will function as "a whirlpool that draws politicians and the people into the [constitutional reform] process." The result will be a national debate —held "without the constraint of the so-called unification vision." The DPP will present its version of the status quo: that Taiwan is and must forever remain a sovereign nation—a fact, the party argues, that makes name changes and independence declarations unnecessary. President Chen, Lin claims, represents the majority view in Taiwan. "More and more people perceive themselves as Taiwanese and favor independence," he says. "Leaders in the international community have to face this reality."

The March presidential election will play out something like a sumo match—with pan-blue and pan-green battling to bounce each other off the safe middle ground. The contest is already underway. James Soong recently accused President Chen of providing "excuses for military leaders [in China] to resort to military means." Instead, he said, pan-blue offers voters "more predictable, rational and sensible" leadership. One strategist in the pan-green camp says that Lien and Soong are vulnerable to claims that they "over-estimate the good will from China and underestimate the threat," adding: "The more pan-blue talks about the status quo, the more people here imagine Taiwan could someday look like Hong Kong," the model for one-country, two-systems unity that Beijing has offered Taipei.

As boisterous as the campaign gets, and no matter how often each party brands the other extremist, the outcome is less important than the process. Taiwan's policy on China won't shift radically no matter who wins. Both President Chen and candidate Lien have said they'll seek negotiations to "normalize" the relationship with Beijing. Each vows to push for direct air and shipping links, to champion arms control as a means to prevent China from further militarizing the crisis and to raise Taipei's diplomatic visibility.

In short, the contest is salient proof that Taiwan's China debate is over. In less than a decade, the consensus has shifted 180 degrees from one that favored eventual unification to the view that Taiwan must remain independent. That fact will remain no matter if the presidential office stays green or turns blue in the next election. And it will continue to frustrate both Taiwan's allies in the United States and a China bent on someday making the island its own.