December 4, 2001
TAIPEI -- In Taiwan's legislative elections Saturday, it sure wasn't the economy, stupid. Taiwan is enduring its worst economic contraction in a half-century, with GDP falling at an annual rate of 4 percent last quarter. Since the historic election of President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party in March 2000, Taiwan's stock market has declined by more than 50 percent. Yet the DPP surprised most observers by winning decisively, gaining 21 seats in the 225-seat legislature and supplanting the Nationalists as the largest party. President Chen, frustrated by opposition control of the legislature in his first year and a half, should be able to find support for a working majority with the help of smaller parties.
Saturday's results mark the completion of Taiwan's democratic revolution. The Nationalists, who had governed Taiwan for over a half-century (the first 40 years or so under martial law), collapsed on Saturday from 123 seats in the 1998 election to 67 seats in this one. The Nationalists had tried to mount a comeback from their defeat in last year's presidential election by running as the party of appeasement of, and eventual reunification with, mainland China. They claimed that Chen's pro-Taiwan-independence background was hurting Taiwan's economic prospects because of the hostility he engendered from the mainland. But the voters dramatically rejected the prospect of reunification in favor of (de facto, if not de jure) independence.
China hands in Washington will desperately try to avoid the clear implications of this vote: America's one-China policy is dead. The citizens of Taiwan think of themselves as a free people separate from China, at least as long as China remains unfree. America has no reason any longer to claim otherwise. It has every reason to support the right of the peoples of Taiwan and China to determine their future relationship based on the principle of popular consent.
The "one China" policy is not only silly, it is dangerous. It can encourage Beijing to believe it can get away with bullying Taiwan, when in fact it is inconceivable that the United States would not come to the aid and defense of a fellow democracy. Last spring President Bush said the United States would do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan. The State Department tried to explain away the president's remark. After Saturday's elections, that remark simply states an obvious truth.
It's therefore time for American policy to adjust to the new reality in a way that helps preserve peace in the Pacific and that strengthens the forces of democracy. It's time to retire the doctrine of "strategic ambiguity" with respect to the defense of Taiwan in favor of an unequivocal commitment to its defense. It's also time to sell Taiwan the arms it needs so it can continue to defend itself and make the U.S. guarantee something that will never have to be invoked.
Nor is there any reason to continue treating Taiwan, a free and democratic republic of 23 million people, as some sort of pariah state. Taiwan's officials are not allowed to visit or meet with senior U.S. government officials. The secretary of state recently met with the foreign minister of Iran, one of the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism -- but he cannot shake hands with the foreign minister of Taiwan. This situation, a relic of the Cold War and of the claims of the previous authoritarian government in Taiwan to the right to rule China, inconveniences Taiwan. It dishonors the United States.
Apart from the military threat from the mainland, the other great danger to Taiwan is that China will use the growing economic relationship between the two neighbors to undermine Taiwan's autonomy. The United States can play a greater role than it now does as an economic counterbalance to China by, for example, exploring the possibility of a free trade agreement with Taiwan. Our business community justifies trade with China on the grounds that it will lead, sometime in the future, to political liberalization. Increased trade with Taiwan defends a political liberalization that has already happened.
East Asia faces a choice between accommodating the rising power of China and deepening and expanding the democratization embraced by many of China's neighbors. The United States has an interest in helping to secure and strengthen the rising democracies -- not least because this could influence China's development in a liberal and democratic direction. It's therefore time to consider some sort of collective security arrangement among the Pacific democracies, with the United States at its center. Mainland China would complain that such a grouping would exclude it. There is, however, an easy answer to the rulers in Beijing: Embrace democracy.
William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.