Beijing's Taiwan Gambit
Embrace fellow travelers, divide the opposition
By Parris Chang
23 April 2009
The common story line with respect to China-Taiwan relations is that Ma Ying-jeou's election as Taiwan's president in 2008 has represented the signal change in the cross-Strait dynamic. Mr. Ma and his Kuomintang are undoubtedly more inclined to pursue friendlier relations with the mainland than the now-opposition Democratic Progressive Party and former President Chen Shui-bian. But the focus on Taipei politics obscures an equally important shift in Beijing. The Chinese leadership has also changed its approach to Taiwan, and in ways that seem to be catching the Taiwanese polity dangerously off guard.
Until relatively recently, Beijing's default attitude was confrontational. President Jiang Zemin, for instance, did not shy away from the threat of force. In March 1996, as Taiwan was engaged in its first popular presidential campaign, the People's Liberation Army fired missiles at Taiwanese waters to warn against Taiwan's move toward independence, prompting the United States to dispatch two aircraft carrier battle groups to forestall PLA invasion. But President Hu Jintao, Mr. Jiang's successor, tends to place greater emphasis on other means.
To start, Beijing has skillfully exploited fault lines in Taiwan's internal politics. The most obvious of these is the often acrimonious split between the KMT and the DPP. To some KMT leaders, who lost the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections to Mr. Chen, the DPP is their principal enemy and the Chinese Communist Party is merely a second enemy. So, especially in the run-up to last year's election, the KMT had few qualms about cooperating with the mainland's Communist leadership, because the overarching goal was to oust the DPP in Taipei.
To bolster Mr. Ma's position relative to the opposition, Beijing appears willing to offer more olive branches than it might have done in the past. On Dec. 31, 2008, Mr. Hu announced a six-point proposal. Mr. Hu spoke of cross-Strait economic cooperation, Taiwan's international participation, and peace and security in the Taiwan Strait -- objectives promoted by Mr. Ma. In practice this could include approval of an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement that would liberalize trade between the two sides, and perhaps an opportunity for Taiwan to participate in international meetings such as the World Health Assembly, something Taipei has long sought.
It would be a mistake to think these are full concessions. Beijing would be careful to structure both arrangements to bolster mainland influence in Taiwan at the expense of any notion of Taiwanese sovereignty. The economic agreement would most likely be modeled on the China-Hong Kong economic arrangement, and would effectively transform Taiwan into a "special economic zone" of China. World Health Assembly participation would come only under Beijing's sponsorship -- and be on a one-year-at-a-time basis instead of permanent. But both steps would be, superficially at least, signs that Mr. Ma's rapprochement policy is working.
The contrast Beijing is trying to foster is between the supposedly skillful diplomats of the KMT on one hand and the refusenik DPP on the other. And sure enough, the KMT is heavily touting Mr. Hu's proposal, claiming that Mr. Hu has responded positively to the KMT's effort to expand Taiwan's international space.
With respect to the DPP, Beijing appears to be playing a wily game both to encourage internal divisions within the DPP and to discredit the DPP on the international stage. In his six-point proposal, Mr. Hu said if the DPP gives up "splittist activities" and "changes its stance for independence, it would elicit an "affirmative response" from Beijing. Mr. Hu has cast the net wide, offering to have dialogues on developing cross-Strait relations with Taiwan's compatriots from all walks of life, "no matter who they are, what party they belong [to], and what they said and did before." The only precondition is they must accept the principle of the 1992 consensus, which states that there is one China but defers other questions.
The response of the opposition DPP was a swift and resounding "no." Rebuking Beijing for attaching a precondition, the DPP stated that if the Chinese government wanted to have talks with the DPP, it should not ask the party to change its position first. But Beijing appears to believe the DPP may not be as united on these issues as it seems.
The Communist Party's United Front Department is actively recruiting potential fellow travelers inside the DPP, hoping to sow discord in the party and play one faction against the other. Beijing has discreetly sent out a feeler to former Vice President Annette Lu, inviting her to visit China. Ms. Lu, an outspoken advocate of an independent Taiwan state, and one of the most prominent DPP leaders, has recently launched a magazine, Formosa Weekly, to promote Taiwan's cause. While she has not yet announced whether she'll go -- she may wait until her publishing venture is more firmly established -- the invitation itself has created waves within the DPP. Some hardliners say that if she went she'd merely be duped and exploited by the Communist Party. But other DPP legislators think the visit would be a good opportunity to tell Beijing what Taiwanese really think on Taiwan's future.
Meantime, Beijing has devoted significant diplomatic and propaganda energy to painting former President Chen as a troublemaker in the eyes of the international community. In this respect, Beijing's warming ties with the KMT have helped. Unable to stop U.S. arms sales to Taiwan mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Beijing instead encouraged the KMT, which controls Taiwan's legislative body, to block the passage of Taiwan's arms procurement bills proposed by the Chen government. Taiwan's political dynamics and Beijing's role confused and misled many Americans, including officials of the Bush Administration and members of the Congress, who wrongly blamed Mr. Chen for not caring about Taiwan's own defense and security. At the same time, diplomatic pressure from Beijing helped entice President George W. Bush to rein in Mr. Chen and stop his alleged drive for de jure independence.
The net effect of all this has been to muddy the waters of internal Taiwanese politics and cross-Strait relations. Mr. Ma is inclined to support warmer relations, but is currently constrained by his own declining popularity (his disapproval rating is now at 58%, largely due to his handling of a struggling economy) and the public's deep ambivalence about ties to the mainland. Yet if Beijing succeeds in encouraging dissension within the DPP, it could diminish a source of strong political opposition. And all this taken together could make it difficult for foreigners to understand the dynamics at work.
The best solution is for Taiwanese politicians -- and voters -- to understand the game Mr. Hu and Beijing are playing. Only by being guided solely by their views of Taiwan's best interests, and not by pressure or influence from outside, will Taiwan's leaders be able to approach cross-Strait relations from a position of strength and confidence. Otherwise, the island may find itself trapped in the "cage of 'One China'" before anyone realizes exactly how it's reached that point.
Mr. Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.