Taiwan Averts a Crisis

With polls predicting a win by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and Beijing threatening dire consequences, cross-Strait relations seemed headed for turbulence. However, to the relief of nervous observers, Saturday's legislative elections resulted in a victory for the opposition alliance led by the more conservative Kuomintang Party. An almost audible sigh of relief could be heard from world capitals – from Beijing to Brussels and Washington, writes Jonathan Fenby. Had the election results been different, the DPP would have been emboldened to take measures moving Taiwan closer toward independence – and might have provoked an aggressive mainland response. Many Western leaders would have faced a tough dilemma: Protect the island's democratic desires, or prevent a certain regional security nightmare and potential global economic crisis. Fortunately, this will not be the case in the near future, but all eyes will remain on President Chen's response to this setback. – YaleGlobal

Taiwan Averts a Crisis

The Opposition victory in the legislature slows the move towards independence, but tension remains
Jonathan Fenby
Monday, December 13, 2004
President Chen's got the blues: Opposition Pan-Blue celebrate their unexpected victory, and the West sighs in relief. (Photo: United Daily News, Chen Yi Chen)

TAIPEI: After Saturday's announcement of the Taiwanese legislative election results, there were almost audible sighs of relief from Washington, European capitals, and Beijing. Despite strong predictions in favor of the ruling party – a win that would add momentum towards independence – the electorate instead voted to maintain the status quo in cross-Strait relations. The narrow defeat of President Chen Shui-bian's party in the legislature will likely slow the independence movement, which would have inevitably spurred Chinese intervention and forced Western leaders to make an awkward choice: Support the democratic desires of the Taiwanese people, or preserve regional peace and stability? Fortunately, that decision will not be necessary – at least in the immediate future.

The failure of president's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to obtain legislative dominance was evident as soon as constituency results began to flash across giant screens at the Taipei counting center. Planned celebrations were shelved at Chen headquarters, while opposition motorcades cruised the streets with drummers beating out victory rhythms. But, overall, the island took the result calmly, as investors waited for an expected stock market surge once the election uncertainty had dissipated.

The weekend election opened a new stage in Taiwan's short democratic life – though hardly in the manner expected. Throughout this year, the breakaway island has managed to irritate both the United States and some major European powers – not to mention mainland China.

After an extremely narrow re-election victory in March, President Chen Shui-bian appeared set on pursuing a policy of autonomy that would likely have led towards a degree of independence. This would surely risk retaliation from Beijing, which insists that the island is still part of China, despite having been divided from the mainland since 1949.

Opinion polls forecast that the President's DPP, allied with a party even more deeply committed to independence, would gain control of the legislature. This result would have been the latest in a series of defeats for the Kuomintang Party (KMT). Though the KMT ran Taiwan for 40 years following Chiang Kai-shek's flight from the mainland, it is committed to eventual reunification.

Several Western powers – along with Japan – desperately wanted to avoid another KMT defeat. A stepped-up conflict between Beijing and Tapei would be a nightmare for the Bush administration. At a time when Washington touted the virtues of democracy in the Middle East, it would have been difficult to abandon the only functioning Chinese democracy in history. But support for Taiwan against mainland intervention would risk destroying the relationship that the United States – along with many other governments – is anxious to build with the new economic powerhouse Beijing.

China's People's Liberation Army has repeatedly indicated it will not rule out military force to regain control of Taiwan. It is reported to have deployed 600 missiles pointing at the island and is pushing for the European Union to lift an arms embargo – thus enabling China to buy high technology military equipment. Short of outright attacks, analysts say the mainland could exert economic pressure or stage small but highly significant moves, like the occupation of one of the Taiwan Strait's uninhabited islands.

For its part, the Chen administration has drawn up a US$18 billion program for arms purchases from the United States. Further, the Prime Minister spoke this autumn of establishing a "balance of terror" with the mainland, including the development of missiles that could hit Shanghai.

As China looms ever larger in US policy, some Taiwanese worry about losing ground in Washington. America certainly faces a dilemma: While the Taiwan Relations Act commits it to protecting the island of 23 million people, the United States counts on Beijing's help to fight terror, to deal with North Korea, and to help fund the federal deficit though purchases of billions of dollars of securities with the proceeds of its huge trade surplus.

On Saturday, Taiwan's voters came to the rescue, giving the Kuomintang and an allied party, which favors a more cautious approach towards the mainland, a one-seat majority in the legislature. In a further sign of public doubts about the administration, an unprecedented 43 percent did not vote – perceived by analysts as reflecting concerns among middle-of-the-road voters about Chen's policies. Senior DPP figures acknowledged that the electorate had sent a message that should deeply affect President Chen's administration.

Though local issues and influences shape voting in many areas, the fact remains that the path towards independence clearly does not enjoy previously assumed levels of support.

In the past, support for the DPP has been seen as equivalent to support for democracy. This past election, Taiwan displayed a new political maturity. Voters signaled that it was time to stop and consider the future: Support for democracy in Taiwan need not equate with independence from Beijing. In that sense, the Saturday ballot brought reasonable conservatism up to the surface of Taiwanese politics.

The mainstream, on both sides, backs a moderate, centrist approach to relations with China. The two more extremist parties – the pro-reunification People First Party and the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union – both did poorly. Analysts believe that the stridency into which the Chen administration fell in the last days of campaigning alienated a slice of its middle-class, who preferred to stay at home rather than back a fresh surge towards independence.

As a result, the outcome was, almost eerily, what could only have been dreamed by the United States, Beijing, and European countries that have denounced President Chen for upsetting the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

All now depends on Chen's next moves. Some of his advisers have discussed abandoning attempts to re-write the constitution, which dates back to the days when Chiang Kai-shek ruled the mainland. They have also talked of avoiding sensitive issues, such as whether to drop the anachronistic name of "Republic of China" and replace it with "Republic of Taiwan" – which Beijing would take as a de facto declaration of independence.

Instead, they said, he should concentrate on fashioning a consensus with the Kuomintang on the cross-Strait issue and draft a new set of proposals for Beijing. This would serve two purposes: preventing the mainland from exploiting the DPP failure and enabling Taipei to enlist Washington's backing in a diplomatic effort.

For decades, Taiwan has assumed that the United States would intervene in the event of a stepped-up confrontation with the mainland. But President Bush, himself, has expressed his support for the status quo. As the former Taiwanese Foreign Minister and current presidential adviser, Tien Hung-mao, noted on Sunday, Washington has many other priorities and is anxious to partner with Beijing without running the risk of Taiwan dislocating the US-China relationship. With Iraq, Iran, and Israel-Palestine on the front boiler, the last thing President Bush wants is a flare-up in the Far East.

The outcome may have been deeply disappointing for those on the island who saw democratization and progress towards independence as going hand-in-hand, whatever Beijing thought. But the election may have produced a correction on the tiller of Taiwan's course, as it finds a way to preserve its own achievements without leading outside powers to sacrifice it at the altar of economic and strategic relations. If that happens, democracy will have proven itself pretty useful, and the world can be grateful to the island's voters.

Jonathan Fenby is editorial director of the predictive news service, earlywarning.com. He was formerly Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization