New Odds on Taiwan’s Fate

December 26th, 2005 


The possibility that China will try to resolve the Taiwan issue prematurely by force or intimidation no longer seems far-fetched. The scenario draws support from the recent political gains of the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT), which Beijing has treated with respect the past year.


The reason for the KMT’s landslide victory in Taiwan’s local elections Dec. 3 can be traced to the defeat suffered by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in last year’s legislative elections. The DPP would have won those elections if it had not overestimated its electoral chances and run so many candidates. If it had gained control of both the executive and legislative branches, the KMT’s long-standing privileges would have been cut back and the weapons needed to defend the island in case of an emergency would have been purchased smoothly.


Before the voting, Taiwan’s “mainlanders” had been obsessed with defeatism that bordered on fatalism. More than half a century after the KMT had fled to the island from the mainland, the party was resigned to a fate of further decline and life under a Taiwanese-led government. During the administration of pro-independence President Lee Teng-hui and the first term of President Chen Shui-bian, KMT-affiliated elites in military, government, judiciary and other organizations yielded to the leadership of a DPP-affiliated government.


After the National Assembly elections, though, the mood changed markedly. The KMT triumph seemed to have revived hopes of a comeback.


China mounted a diplomatic offensive to take advantage of that. Since last spring, Beijing has enacted the antisecession law, and invited the heads of Taiwan’s opposition parties to visit, treating them as government guests in open disregard of the legitimate government in Taipei.


China’s support for the KMT has been so arrogant that Taiwan’s opposition leaders could not have accepted the invitations had it not been for the Nationalist victory in the legislative elections. So the local elections went off Dec. 3 with the KMT in a fighting mood.


Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Chinese war with Japan, praised the bravery of the Nationalist forces during the war. Ma Ying-jeou, who enjoys overwhelming personal popularity and became KMT chairman, is bracing for the next presidential election in 2008.


To meet the KMT challenge, the DPP must start preparing for the presidential election now. At an early date, it must select a candidate who commands the solid backing of the party. That may be easier said than done, but it will be the only way to win the election. It is too early to forecast the outcome of the presidential vote. In the meantime, I am more concerned about how China will move in the future.


Earlier I had believed that a crisis across the Taiwan Strait, if it was likely at all, would develop in the distant future. That belief was based, first of all, on the assumption that the tendency of the Taiwanese people to seek their own identity would continue to increase over time.


Some now see an opposite tendency arising as a result of the local elections. That’s possible if the deepening of Taiwan’s economic relations with China necessarily affected public opinion on the island.


In my view, the people of Taiwan will continue to seek national self-determination and will not give up their hard-earned democracy. That’s just human nature. Also, the identity-oriented elementary and secondary education that began with Chen’s administration will show its effect gradually. I believe the desire of Taiwanese to settle Taiwanese affairs themselves will increase.


Furthermore, as long as Taiwan remains a democracy, public opinion and the Congress in the United States ultimately will have no choice except to come to the defense of the island. Therefore, I had believed that a military conquest of Taiwan was out of the question.


Although Beijing had proclaimed its commitment to the liberation and unification of Taiwan, that “principle” seemed to exist in name only. The commitment did not seem realistic unless China’s military power grew to rival America’s. And that would take a long time.


However, if the KMT wins the next presidential election, might Beijing view that as a one-time-only golden opportunity to take over the island?


The fact remains, though, that at least half the people of Taiwan do not want to be ruled by the mainland; nor do they want their hard-earned democracy to be restricted even to the extent that Hong Kong’s is. Heavy-handed action by China will likely cause considerable opposition, resistance and confusion in Taiwan and create international tensions.


The ideal solution to the Taiwan issue is for China to step back and allow Taiwan to work out its democracy. International consensus and pressure in this direction is the best course that can be hoped for at present.