Enough Meddling with Chen

February 2nd, 2004 


Taiwan’s presidential election in March will be no run-of-the-mill contest. That is obvious from the standpoint of China, which ardently seeks unification with the island. Simply put, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) stands for unification with the main land, while the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, of President Chen Shui-bian hopes to maintain Taiwan’s freedom.


The Nationalist Party, composed mostly of mainlanders, has strong influence, retaining half-century-old vested interests and organizations. The party, however, is likely to gradually lose public support as Taiwan natives, who account for the majority of the population, wake up to calls for its own identity.


The last chance for mainland China and pro-unification groups in Taiwan to bring about unification is for the Nationalist candidate to win the coming presidential election and establish an irreversible unification process while in office.


Thus the coming election is not an ordinary one based on parliamentary democracy. Normally, if the DPP lost the election, it could try to regain power four years later in the next election. Such a development is unlikely this time.


In their election campaign, the Nationalists, of course, are unlikely to talk about a strategy to block future changes in political leadership; they may not even be thinking about it. But, realistically, if they took power, the Nationalists would not have much choice other than to monopolize the government in one way or another, which would mean the end of Taiwanese democracy.


The outlook for the election is uncertain. The Nationalists, who lost the last election because of complacency, agreed on a single candidate and maintained an overwhelming lead over the DPP in ratings through the middle of last year. Now the two parties are running neck and neck, with an increasing number of Taiwanese natives supporting the DPP. Moreover, the DPP has devised a plan to hold a national referendum on Taiwanese security on the same day as the presidential election.


The idea may seem outrageous and a blatant scheme to win the presidential election, but it is understandable, considering the special circumstances under which the election will be held. Furthermore, it is a fair approach for awakening the ethnic sentiment of native Taiwanese, who make up the majority of the population. Besides, in many countries it is common to resort to dubious tactics to win an election, and it is not for outsiders to question other countries’ policies as long as they are legally correct.


China’s concern over this development is real. China’s missile threat against Taiwan in connection with the presidential election eight years ago was counter productive. This time China has applied diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, through the United States, to call off the referendum. The U.S. yielded. A statement is sued by the U.S. government on the U.S.- China summit held during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s Washington visit in December openly criticized the proposed referendum.


In an editorial The Washington Post criticized President George W. Bush for “kowtowing” to China, deploring what it said was the appearance of the U.S. siding with a dictatorship over a democracy. There was little support in the U.S. media for Bush’s position.


The surprise did not end there. Suddenly Japan expressed concern about the proposed referendum. Until then, Japan had meticulously observed the principle of noninterference in Taiwanese affairs since signing the San Francisco Treaty in 1951. Furthermore, the Japanese action went through an official channel even though Japan and Taiwan have no official relations.


Japan and the U.S. tried to explain their actions. Tokyo said it had no intention of interfering with Taiwanese affairs and that it was only expressing concern … not only to Taiwan but also to China … over the effects of the referendum on security in the Far East. Washington said it objected to a referendum that could change the status quo.


The problem is consequences, not explanations. The Japanese and U.S. actions adversely affected Chen’s public support, weakening the effects of the planned referendum and delivering a substantial blow to Chen’s re-election bid. Tokyo and Washington thus effectively intervened in Taiwanese affairs.


Oddly, though, neither Japan nor the U.S. wants Chen to lose the presidential election and turn power back over to the Nationalists. Neither wants to see the future of Taiwanese democracy endangered. Yet, Japan and the U.S., in effect, intervened in Taiwanese affairs through their actions, produced exactly the results that China wanted.


What should Japan do in the future? If the recent Japanese action was not intended to reduce Chen’s election chances, it would be best for Tokyo to take action before the election to try to repair any damage caused by demonstrating the fairness and neutrality of its policies. At the very least, Japan should refrain from further actions or statements that might hurt Chen.


Taiwan has recently modified the contents of the proposed referendum. If Japan refrains from commenting on the new proposal, it may be regarded as an offer of tacit support to Taiwan.


China is likely to try desperately to prevent Chen’s re-election in various ways. It is a natural course of action for China to take. Having once taken action in support of China on this issue, however, Japan should now remain strictly neutral.