Flashpoint, Taiwan

Monday, October 30, 2000

The Turnover on Taiwan

O

n March 18, 2000, the most fiercely fought election in the history of Taiwan (the Republic of China—ROC) resulted in a close victory for the candidate of the Democratic Progessive Party (DPP), Chen Shui-bian. This election, closely watched around the world, was the most important event in Taiwan’s recent political history because it removed the Guomindang (GMD) Party from power after 55 years of continuous rule.

There could be enormous political fallout from the election because Taiwan’s new ruling party has historically rejected the long-standing “one-China” framework under which Taiwan has conducted negotiations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under this framework, both sides agree that there is only one China, while deferring on the question of whether the legitimate government is in Beijing or Taipei. Instead, the DPP has long called for Taiwan to conduct normal “state-to-state” relations with the PRC. In the prickly relations between Taiwan and the PRC, such semantics are critically important, and the term state- to-state relations is seen by the PRC as an alarming move toward Taiwanese independence and a rejection of the long-established “one-China” policy.

Because Beijing’s leaders understood only too well the DPP’s history and the proindependence leanings of many of its members, Premier Zhu Rongji of the PRC warned Taiwan’s voters on March 15, three days before the elections, to reject Chen Shui-bian, telling them that “they would not get a second chance if they ignored [his warning].” This bellicose threat by Beijing’s leaders and their meddling in Taiwan’s internal political affairs likely caused some to switch their votes to Chen. But, more worrisome for future cross-strait relations, Premier Zhu’s remarks stung members of the U.S. Congress, and many vowed they would vote for a new bill enhancing the Taiwan Relations Act, vote against admitting the PRC into the World Trade Organization, and even consider legislation committing the United States to defending Taiwan from attack. Fortunately, Chen’s postelection victory statements could discourage such actions because the new president-elect immediately called for improving relations between Taiwan and mainland China.

In his first days in office, President Chen made numerous conciliatory gestures toward Beijing, including a proposal that the DPP remove a controversial article calling for a referendum on Taiwan’s future status from its party charter. He also suggested that communication channels be improved between the ROC island of Jinmen and the PRC’s Xiamen city, which face each other across a narrow channel. Finally, Chen invited Wang Daohan, the president of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS)—the private Chinese agency set up to conduct negotiations with Taiwan—to his May 20 inauguration. (To avoid official state-to-state negotiations, China and Taiwan carry on negotiations through private agencies. The Taiwan counterpart is the Straits Exchange Foundation [SEF].) In these conciliatory gestures, however, President Chen revealed the weakness of his presidential mandate. His party’s Central Committee leaders could not agree to remove the controversial article and promised to study the matter. His cabinet opposed any improvement of communications between Jinmen and Xiamen because the matter required more study. And Beijing, responding on behalf of Wang Daohan, stated that he would not be visiting Taiwan.

In early May, Tang Shubei, deputy director of ARATS, was quoted as saying that “one China does not necessarily mean the PRC.” By advancing this new definition of one China, the Beijing leadership conceded, according to Tang, that “the sovereignty and territory of China cannot be divided, but regarding cross-strait relations, both sides are equal and there is no relationship between ‘center’ and ‘locality.’” Thus far, Taiwan’s new leaders have not responded to Tang’s overture.

On May 20, President Chen delivered his inauguration speech, in which he finally addressed cross-strait relations, pledging that if the PRC regime did not use force, his administration would not undertake the following:

  • Declare Taiwan’s independence

  • Change the island’s name to the Republic of China

  • Place the concept of state-to-state relations in the ROC constitution

  • Hold a referendum to establish an independent Taiwan

  • Abolish the government-sponsored National Unification Council and its guidelines for unification as set forth in March 1991

Declaring that war would be destructive for both sides, President Chen urged each side’s leaders to use benevolence and wisdom and adhere to the principles of goodwill, reconciliation, active cooperation, and permanent peace to improve cross-strait relations.

Chen’s speech neither mentioned “one China” nor indicated how to negotiate the divided China issue. The president praised the greatness of Taiwan and lauded its people but avoided provoking the PRC regime. Chen’s administration, extending the olive branch of peace, promised cooperation with the PRC.

If both Chinese regimes fail to return to the détente of the early 1990s and still prefer confrontation, tensions will inevitably increase and the current military buildup will accelerate.

Beijing’s measured response welcomed President Chen’s intentions but insisted that negotiations under the one-China principle cannot be postponed forever. Nevertheless, when Beijing’s leaders promised they would take a “watch and see” approach toward the new Chen administration, a sigh of relief must have been released in both Taipei and Washington.

What Should Happen

After having made concessions, both sides should now seize this historic opportunity to reappraise their goals and means and try to establish a cooperative framework for peaceful coexistence under the one-China principle. President Chen can be a great peacemaker by preparing a commonwealth arrangement to offer Beijing and by mobilizing domestic support for it. He might prefer to negotiate interim agreements with Beijing to expand cooperation, but his administration cannot delay too long in addressing the divided China problem. Meanwhile, President Jiang Zemin and his associates can give peace a chance by respecting Taiwan’s democratic, free society and accommodating Taiwan’s preference for a commonwealth under the one-China principle.

Step-by-step negotiations to advance a cross-strait dialogue can be achieved as follows. First, the two sides should attempt to restore the détente that existed between them in the early 1990s. Toward this goal, some confidence-building measures should take place. Both sides should instruct their negotiating intermediaries to meet and begin working on the three issues—fishing rights, hijacking, and smuggling—that were the subject of their meetings before relations deteriorated in the mid-1990s. If both sides can agree on those three functional issues, Wang Daohan, the head of ARATS, and Koo Chen-fu, the chairman of SEF, could meet in Taiwan and Wang could pay his respects to the new president and vice president of the ROC regime. The Wang-Koo meeting would then set the stage for planning enlarged meetings between their organizations—rotating between Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei—to develop an agenda for political discussions to resolve the Chinese civil war and the sovereignty of Taiwan-China. As both these issues are closely connected, they cannot be resolved separately.

Prolonged and creative negotiation is the only way that Taiwan and mainland China can build a framework for peaceful coexistence as equal partners of one China.

The main obstacle preventing negotiations on these two issues is the difficulty of arriving at a definition of China that allows both regimes to coexist as part of a single China. The term China not only denotes a civilization but signifies a territory. In recent times the term greater China has come to signify the existing PRC-administered mainland territory, the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, and the ROC-administered territory of Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the offshore islands. If both regimes can accept the concept of greater China as signifying China, they should then be able to designate that a China commonwealth is the equivalent of China. In this way, the principle of one China can denote a clear meaning, not only for both regimes but for the world. More important, both regimes would then share the sovereignty of one China.

Agreeing that a China commonwealth means China would uphold the principle of one China and signify the first phase of China’s unification. This agreement signals a breakthrough, but both regimes still cannot end the Chinese civil war without incentives for each regime to be committed to upholding the China commonwealth concept. To create these incentives, both parties must negotiate a framework of agreed-on rules to enable them to develop their respective societies according to their goals and means and still enjoy mutual cooperation and respect. These rules must also provide incentives for both regimes to commit to preserving the China commonwealth to make this phase of China’s reunification secure and meaningful.

Both regimes would negotiate these rules in three important areas: first, direct contacts between their territories via telecommunications, air and sea transportation, and postal services; second, those matters pertaining to foreign affairs; and, finally, military defense. Negotiations to determine these rules will be long and difficult. Yet both regimes could address them sequentially or simultaneously. Once rules are established for these three kinds of regime interactions, both could turn to the civil war issue and conclude a treaty repudiating the use of force. Both regimes could then designate how long this China commonwealth arrangement would operate and define the terms under which both sides might agree to establish a China federation. A China commonwealth would promote direct links, improve cooperation between the respective military establishments, and allow for some expansion of the ROC regime’s international space under terms permissible to the ROC.

In the next few years, if both Chinese regimes fail to return to the détente of the early 1990s and still prefer confrontation, tensions will increase and the current military buildup will accelerate. By initiating political negotiations with Beijing, President Chen Shui-bian would ensure his legacy as a peacemaker.

The Role of the United States

In November 2000 there will be a newly elected American president. He and his team should work closely with Congress to encourage cross-strait negotiations. We urge that the new administration and Congress try to understand why the divided China problem has become so serious for Sino-American relations. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 is ambiguous enough to encourage both Chinese regimes to negotiate and requires no tinkering. We recommend that Congress and the new administration agree not to supply Taiwan with further weapons at this time. That decision can be reviewed after Taiwan’s authorities have offered a commonwealth formula to negotiate in good faith with Beijing and Beijing has positively responded.

What about the debate now evolving in the United States over whether the United States should defend, at any cost, a democratic Taiwan even if that means again intervening in the internal affairs of the Chinese people and possibly risking a war between the PRC and the United States? The Taiwan-Chinese sovereignty issue has been one of many factors driving China’s military modernization in recent years. But once political negotiations begin between the two Chinese regimes, that factor will count far less for justifying their future military buildups along the Taiwan Strait. Just as negotiations are taking place between nations involved in the divided Korea issue, so should negotiations between Taiwan and mainland China help to normalize their relations.

U.S. interests will be best served by cross-strait negotiations rather than by encouraging a military buildup along the Taiwan Strait and committing to defend Taiwan under any circumstances.

The history of the Taiwan—mainland China regime rivalry reveals that political negotiations are possible. Beijing’s new one-China principle, as set forth by Tang Shubei, provides the only basis for nurturing a cooperative framework between the two regimes. The U.S. government and Congress should insist that this principle serve as the basis for negotiating a commonwealth federation formula by which both sides can cooperate as one China and yet be independent. U.S. interests will be best served by cross-strait negotiations rather than by encouraging a military buildup along the Taiwan Strait and committing to defend Taiwan under any circumstances.

Twentieth-century history has brought enormous tragedy to the Chinese people. Taiwan’s people were spared some of that suffering because, as a colony of imperial Japan for half a century, they were isolated from the turmoil on the China mainland. But Japanese colonial rule and many decades of Nationalist government rule created a complex society with lingering ethnic tensions. Expanding cooperation between the ROC and PRC regimes can heal ethnic rivalry in Taiwan and improve their economic and social integration, helping to preserve regional peace and prosperity. Despite the differences that now characterize these two Chinese societies, they share much in common. Prolonged and creative negotiation is the only way both regimes can build a cooperative framework to peacefully coexist in the future as equal partners of one China.