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Vice President Delivers Keynote at World Forum for Democratization in Asia

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IASC is of course politically non-partisan and fact based. But we do support freedom and democracy. So it was a great honor when our vice president Arthur Waldron delivered the last of three kenote speeches at the historic first meeting of the World Forum for Democratization in Asia, held in Taipei September 15-17. The other keynoters were The Honorable David Kilgour, Member of the Canadian Parliament, and Dr. Hsin-huang Michael Hsiao, of the Academia Sinica.

Dozens of the most influential democracy advocates in Asia participated actively in this meeting, drafting a concrete plan for action. Next spring the World Forum for Democratization in Asia (WFDA) will coordinate Asian representation at the World Movement for Democracy meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.

Placed along side the stirrings of democratic talk in China—the partial rehabilitation of former, democratizing prime minister Hu Yaobang, the release of several political prisoners, and the appearance of some dissenting items in the state press—this forum and the genuine enthusiasm it unleashed suggest that the status quo, straight line projection for China is wrong: things will not remain the same politically; they will change, perhaps by falling into chaos, but possibly by genuinely liberalization.

Ironically, however, some political currents in Taiwan seem to be fighting this tide. The Kuomintang of Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui transformed the autocratic government of the Republlic of China on Taiwan into what is today one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia.

But worryingly, this democracy is neither deep rooted nor secure. The reason is a remarkable about face by the Kuomintang, which, having lost the last two presidential elections, and holding only a razor slim majority in the Legislative Yuan, in coalition with the People’s First Party, has turned its back on democracy and aligned itself with China—going so far as to block vital appropriations for defensive weapons, favored by the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese. Legislation enabling these purchases—submarines and anti-submarine aircraft, urgently needed—has just been kept from the floor for the twenty ninth time.

The Kuomintang’s pro-China policy is a dramatic reversal of the anti-Communist, pro-Taiwan stands of both Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui. It originated in 2000, when the Kuomintang candidate for president, Lien Chan, was defeated by Chen Shuibian—and event that rocked the party and led to the expulsion of Lee Teng-hui and his democratically inclined colleagues. The policy was strengthened even more when Lien was defeated a second time last year. Deeply frustrated, Lien decided not to retire gracefully as a senior statesman having good democratic credentials, but instead traveled to China, where, without any authorization from his own elected government, he carried out negotiations and conversations that would rightly be the province of a chief of state. He has been followed in this by his running mate, People’s First Party leader and erstwhile democrat, James Soong Chu-yu.

This policy shift has tied government in Taipei into knots and halted national business in the legislature. This may be psychologically satisfying, but many in Taiwan—not least in the Kuomintang—are asking: is this a policy that will win elections? Parliamentary elections for a reformed legislature, half the size of the present, with single member constituencies, are coming next year.

The Kuomintang has just elected, overwhelmingly, as its new chairman the Mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou. Ma was born in Hong Kong but grew up and made his so far very successful political career in Taiwan. He won the election for party leadership because he promised reform, while his opponent, legislative speaker Wang Jynping, hewed close to the line of outgoing leader Lien Chan.

The question now is: will Ma deliver? By all accounts an honest man, and very well educated (Harvard Law School) Ma has been an indifferent mayor of Taipei, chiefly because of his tendency to avoid difficult decisions. Thus prosecutions for building violations—which are rampant—have fallen dramatically on his watch.

But if Ma is to win the presidency of Taiwan, clearly his aspiration, he is going to have to make a clear decision on China policy. Either he goes with his predecessors, visits China, opposes defense, and so forth—and loses. Or he changes course and returns to the robust Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui line. He cannot fudge this.

Ma has now been chairman of the Kuomintang for one month, but has so far done very little. On defense, he has called the cost of desperately needed submarines from the United States “expensive beyond reasons.” This suggests he will follow the dead end opened up by his immediate predecessor Lien Chan. Yet on the other hand, balancer that he is, he is open to discussion with those who disagree. But he cannot avoid a decision, and how he chooses will determine his future.

Meanwhile the government of Chen Shuibian has shown itself remarkably inept at turning this Kuomintang policy reversal into support for his Democratic Progressive Party. This is in part because of a deep fear in the population of upsetting China. But it also reflects ineptitude on the part of that government, which is poor at communicating and forming coalitions. The president, a brilliant man and democratic hero, is nevertheless very much a loner, who consults little and sets policy himself. This is perhaps not surprising in a party that was long illegal or in opposition. But unless the party greatly strengthens the coherence and conviction with which it presents its message, and learns how to take advantage of opposition missteps, it may find itself in the position of the Kuomintang, which currently seems simply to be hoping that something good will turn up.

Democracies are messy in the best of times. Legislatures are baulky, even our own. But Taiwan is a special case for two reasons. First, its position is in fact key to the whole strategic complexion of Asia, just as the success or failure of its democracy will deeply affect China’s future. But second, through a long series of mostly American misjudgments and mistakes, the island has been marginalized, delegitimized, and excluded from the international community. Taipei, probably one of the dozen most important cities for American and world security, does not even have an embassy—only a jerry-built, “unofficial” American “Institute” that though better than nothing, is clearly dysfunctional.

So what can we expect? The new divisions inside the island of Taiwan pose a conundrum for neighbors, who did not see the pro-China strategy coming. One of the most insightful of the long term foreign residents, fluent in the local language and in touch with everyone, confessed to me that even he was astonished: the scales literally fell from his eyes only when the Kuomintang abandoned advocacy of democracy when they began losing elections, and turned to the vain hope that China will somehow save them.

More likely, China will hang them electorally. But the game has suddenly become far more complex, and neighbors of Taiwan, who long ignored it, assuming that it and the US would look after their interests, are now discovering that they will have to make choices.

Meanwhile, as Japan, the country that would be most harmed by a Chinese take over of Taiwan, is becoming more active. My own prediction is that the US-China-Taiwan issue will soon become a subset of a much larger set of questions: the China-Japan relationship.

IASC takes no position in this emerging drama, except to support freedom and democracy and oppose dictatorship. But we do intend, in the months ahead, to make ourselves Washington’s best and most authoritative source of accurate, detailed, and unbiased information about Taiwan and its neighbors.

Read Arthur Waldron's speech: China's Roles in World Democracy

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