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Taiwan’s New China Policy

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 30th, 2009
LOOKING FORWARD

For a year now Taiwan’s president Ma Yingjeou 馬英九 (b. 1950) has been implementing what might be called a “sunshine policy” toward China. He and his colleagues have high hopes that these policies will elicit Chinese reciprocation, bring a reduction of tension between the two countries, leading eventually to a reduction in the military confrontation over the Taiwan Strait. For a Taiwanese leader, however, this is uncharted diplomatic territory, filled with risks and land mines. The question is: will Ma succeed?

This is a major change. For eight years, under Democratic Progressive Party president Chen Shuibian 陳 水扁 (b. 1950) Taiwan asked the world to recognize it as a country distinct from China, having its own history and most important its own political system. Chen’s call for justice for his homeland was more than fair, but it shook the set of interlocking pretenses, not always factual, that constitute our and Beijing’s policy.

Now Ma is, in effect, making the same requests but making them to China. He wants the two countries to reach a set of agreements that will end hostility and permit long-term coexistence. On the question of whether Taiwan will ever join China, he has proclaimed himself agnostic. On his watch, however (and here he differs from Chen) there will be “no unification and no formal independence.”

Washington and Beijing have both long prayed for a Republic of China president (Ma is a stalwart Kuomintang member, which means that he thinks of Taiwan not as distinct from China, but rather as legally the territory held by the government of the Republic of China, which ruled the entire country until 1949). Now their prayers have been answered. The question is: will they do what will be necessary to make Ma’s vision a reality? As will be seen, I am skeptical.

That an outcome such as Ma envisions would be in everyone’s interest is the first point to be grasped. Both Taiwan and China will benefit from trade; a lowered risk of war would be  a great gift. The only really serious problem is what Taiwan’s status should be called (I say “called” because by all standards Taiwan is a country, no question, but China and the Kuomintang are sensitive about actually admitting that fact so they  veer away from the obvious solution which is to call the place Taiwan). That issue could prove Ma’s undoing, moreover, for not even his own party, I suspect, would support any steps that diminished Taiwan’s nationhood. Ma has therefore emphasized, correctly, that reduced tension with China is in Taiwan’s economic interest.

Ma’s program, therefore, goals should have a great deal of support and perhaps they do. The latest polls however show Ma slipping, to below thirty percent (after winning fifty eight percent of the presidential vote); a reading of the Taiwanese press reveals widespread misgivings and uncertainties, not so much about the policy goals themselves as about how they are being pursued, and most importantly, the deeply felt risk that somehow among Ma’s goodwill gestures will be unacceptable compromises with respect to the sovereignty of Taiwan.

The whole policy rests on a mixture of disputed agreements and high hopes. The disputed agreement is the so-called “1992” consensus in which, so Ma’s camp asserts, both Taiwan and China agreed that there was only one China, but that each side could have its own interpretation of that phrase--or to put it another way, Taiwan could say that their “Republic of China” coterminous with Taiwan and its islands, would be their “one China” or at least, as former Kuomintang governments argued, the legitimate government of all of the territory of China, the People’s Republic included.

Opposition groups deny that any such consensus was ever in fact reached. Certainly the Chinese side has never stressed the right to independent interpretations: for them the “One China” is the focus. Opposition groups also point out that 1992 was before full democracy had come into being in Taiwan. The validity of agreements reached before democracy is placed into question.

The negotiations so far, furthermore, have been far from transparent. Taiwan has a government and a legislature, whose speaker Wang Jynping  王 金平 (b. 1941)  a leading figure in Ma’s  own party, maintains that any agreements reached between the two sides must undergo legislative scrutiny and approval.

This view is not welcome to other members of the same party, who find the privacy of party-to-party negotiations convenient and agreeable.  Communist party and Nationalist or Kuomintang party, more amenable to sensitive discussions that might attract fire if made public. The two parties can do much business in secret, bypassing Taiwan’s elected government. As for China, it has no elected government; the party is it.

A genuine fear exists among some in Taiwan that even if Ma himself has no desire to make harmful concessions, he may find himself under almost irresistible pressure from economic and ideological groups to go along. Ma has yet really to show his hand. A highly capable man of undoubted integrity, his weakness, if any, is a desire to please everyone, his final position is not yet clear, though his recent forthright support of enhanced defense for Taiwan perhaps gives some indication.

For unless Taiwan has her own, autonomous and formidable military strength, sufficient to frighten China, Ma will never possess the sort of credibility needed in tough negotiations. He will appear a supplicant, representing a small country more or less at China’s mercy, militarily incapable even of hurting China, and economically drawn more and more into China’s orbit. A supplicant then, not an equal; someone who may be given some crumbs but nothing of real substance.

For these reasons, Ma’s biggest problems do not come from within Taiwan itself, though there he has his die hard supporters and opponents. Rather, the success of his “sunshine policy” toward China will be determined by two players over whom he has no control: namely, China and the United States.

For Ma’s initiatives to work, China must genuinely reciprocate. Boilerplate about being 同胞 literally “from the same womb” or at least cousins, coupled with exchanges of dance troupes, and so forth will not do the job. Neither will a purely economic approach such as the one that has already given us the very welcome direct flights, from Taiwan to twenty one Chinese cities and from China to eight in Taiwan. Overnight Taiwan has been transformed into a nearly ideal base for any foreign business doing business in China. It is far nearer and more Chinese than Singapore, but it is not actually under China’s thumb, like Hong Kong. Talk of a broader economic and political framework is rife, but more controversial--though Ma swears to push it through--because of that word “political.” The people of Taiwan still fear a sell-out, specifically a sell-out by people of immediate Chinese ancestry, like Ma--though he personally has provided no grounds for such a fear.

What China must do acquiesce in Taiwan’s move to  political equality with her, or at least to a recognized international status that in no way depends upon China’s say so. At the same time China must cease her constant pressure, that seeks to strip Taiwan of her allies, exclude her from international organizations, intimidate her militarily--generally to marginalize her in every dimension.

China currently has 1,500 intermediate range ballistic missiles targeting the island, roughly one for every fifteen thousand Taiwanese. Ma has repeatedly called upon China to withdraw these missiles, as a confidence building measure. In fact, however, withdrawal is not enough as the missiles can be pulled back and then redeployed. Making peace across the Strait will require that China verifiably destroy each and every one of those missiles by grinding them to pieces so they are converted to no more than scrap metal. One has great difficulty imagining China doing such a thing. The regime never has never made a concession on such a scale even to Washington, and it has never lost out on a vital interest by such refusal. (Thus today China builds a military force against the United States while still benefiting from unfettered access to our markets).

Yet consider what would have happened if China had greeted Ma’s inauguration by destroying all those missiles as described. Skepticism about Ma’s “sunshine policy” would scarcely have been voiced amidst the general astonishment and rejoicing. Agreements with China would have proved easier to sell to the Taiwanese people, not to mention easier to conclude in the first place, for genuine trust would have been enhanced. Only diehards would have pointed out that even without the missiles China remained extraordinarily strong.

Suppose. furthermore, that  Beijing had announced it would recognize the Republic of China as a state, send an ambassador, allow relations with other countries, and welcome it to the UN--but never accept an independent Taiwan? Can you imagine the havoc that would have wrought in Taiwan’s internal politics? How much it would have increased Chinese influence? How it could even have led to a settlement, party to party with the people excluded, of Taiwan’s predicament?

China missed those opportunities. They will not come again. Beijing’s failure to move may be imputed to an overweening confidence in its own victory, whatever Taiwan may do, or the unimaginative intellectual lock step of the regime, or it may simply be a matter of bureaucratic inflexibility. But the failure to move was a terrible mistake by China. Whether Beijing will be able to make future concessions, even including belated destruction of the missiles, even an offer of recognition, sufficient to enable Ma to sell “sunshine” to a keen eyed populace remains to be seen,

The United States is the other power whose effect on Ma’s success or failure will be decisive. In the past, the United States has treated presidents of Taiwan as non-persons, at least politically. The dictator of a small oil-rich state where dissidents disappear regular may be assured of a warm welcome from the American president, a state banquet, perhaps an post prandial drink in the White House private quarters--but an elected president of Taiwan, where law rules, the press is free and political prisoners are non-existent has never been permitted to visit Washington D.C. Instead “unofficial” visits to New York (the next best) or Anchorage (depending on how Washington is feeling) are the order of the day. If the United States wants Ma to succeed, however, she will have to give him tangible benefits that he can show to his people: a free trade agreement, a visit to Washington D.C. and a handshake with Mr. Obama, sales of weapons to which China objects.

Sadly, it is not clear that Washington will prove any more forthcoming on substance than will Beijing. Both are in the habit of taking the island for granted, while lamenting the hair-trigger state of its confrontation with China.

Now along comes a president of Taiwan who genuinely wants to resolve at least some of the outstanding issues. No question that this would be a welcome achievement. But sadly too, it looks to this observer at least as if Chinese and American prevarication and lack of vision may doom Ma to being a leader whom many admire and praise, but no one takes seriously enough actually to follow.

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