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Australia must not shun democratic Taiwan

December 14, 2004

We send troops to Iraq to implant democracy, yet Taiwan gets few favours, writes Bruce Jacobs.

Taiwan's voters went to the polls to elect legislators last Saturday - and the results suggest they may finally be getting tired of their country's numerous elections. About 80 per cent of Taiwan's citizens voted in March in the presidential election; this time fewer than 60 per cent turned out.

Taiwan has no absentee, postal or pre-voting systems, so this is still a good turnout. But clearly the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has lost the momentum that had carried it to ever-greater victories since 2000.

From the end of World War II until 2000, the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party controlled Taiwan's politics. For more than 40 of those years, the KMT ran an authoritarian system that enabled the minority from the Chinese mainland, 15 per cent of the island's population, to control the native Taiwanese who accounted for 85 per cent. Only in the 1990s, under President Lee Teng-hui, did Taiwan democratise.

Then in 2000, the DPP candidate for president, Chen Shui-bian, defeated a divided ruling party. In 2001, the DPP surprisingly became the largest party in the parliament, though it still controlled only a minority of the seats.

Earlier this year, President Chen Shui-bian won re-election by 30,000 votes out of almost 13 million votes cast. Many observers, as well as the DPP leadership, hoped last Saturday's election would finally see a DPP-led majority in parliament, but this did not occur. Rather the DPP gained a 2 per cent increase on its 2001 vote and gained two seats. The KMT and its ally retained a majority.

The leaders of both major parties talked during the campaign about large national issues such as Taiwan's "identity", the purchase of military weapons, and relations with China and the United States. But the result suggests voters were more interested in local issues such as the medical system, schools and roads. In the end, local factors predominated. To the extent that national factors were an issue, Taiwan's electorate demonstrated that it is moderate.

'It is China that is the 'threat' in the region, pointing something like 600 missiles at Taiwan.'

How does this election affect Australia? Taiwan has provided an important, though difficult, problem for our foreign relations. We recognised China diplomatically in 1972, when the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship ran Taiwan, and we agreed that Taiwan belonged to China.

But as Taiwan has democratised, the sense of "Taiwan identity", as opposed to "Chinese identity", has rapidly increased. The minority of mainlanders have lost their privileged position in Taiwanese politics and society, but large numbers of second-generation mainlanders have developed a fair amount of "Taiwan identity" and contribute to the island's democratic richness.

Many people in Australia, including politicians from both sides of the fence, have strong sympathy with Taiwan even if we do not officially recognise the island diplomatically. We do, in fact, have a large unofficial office in Taipei that represents our interests in Taiwan, and the Taiwan Government has offices in Australia.

Our Government has on many occasions stated that any changes to the status of Taiwan should occur peacefully and with the consent of the people of Taiwan, who number 23 million.

China, however, maintains Taiwan still belongs to it, even though Taiwan has never been part of the People's Republic. In fact, it is China that is the "threat" in the region, pointing something like 600 missiles at Taiwan and continuously increasing the number of these missiles and other armaments to threaten the island. Chinese defence expenditures rise constantly, while those of Taiwan and other countries such as Japan have remained low. Thus, it is China that is trying to change the status quo.

Australia faces a number of competing pressures from China. We seek China's assistance in maintaining regional stability and in solving the North Korean nuclear problem. We also have large trading interests with China, though the balance of trade is in China's favour.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is a vigorous democracy. Australia has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years to try to implant democracy in those countries. Clearly, we should not shun emerging democracies such as Taiwan simply because China claims them. We also have substantial trade and investment interests in Taiwan - and the balance of trade with Taiwan is in Australia's favour.

Ideally, Australia will continue its quiet, officially "unofficial" diplomacy with Taiwan. We will continue to urge China to talk to Taiwan and to continue to enhance their ever-growing economic trade and investment, which is vital to China's economic growth and reform.

Last Saturday's moderate decisions by Taiwan's electorate will, it is to be hoped, encourage China to open talks with the Chen Shui-bian Government. Even if the two sides fail to reach agreement, such talks should enable Beijing to gain some understanding of Taiwan's goodwill towards China.

Bruce Jacobs, professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University, was in Taiwan to observe the weekend election.