Asia Program

Events

"Taiwan: One Year into the Revolution?"

May 17, 2001 // 12:00am

By Gang Lin
Asia Program Associate

Caleb M. Clark, professor, Auburn University;
Andrew J. Nathan, professor, Columbia University;
Robert S. Ross, professor, Boston College;
Kerry B. Dumbaugh, specialist, Congressional Research Service

Chen Shui-bian's inauguration as president of Taiwan on May 20, 2000 marked an epoch-making watershed in Taiwan's political development and power configuration. The peaceful power transfer from the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) indicated the maturation of Taiwan's democratization. Because of Chen's slim margin of victory and the dominance of the KMT in the Legislative Yuan, the DPP attempted to share power with the KMT through the quasi-coalition government of Chen-Tang cohabitation. However, neither the opposition parties nor all DPP factions were willing to endorse the quasi coalition government, eventually replacing it with a DPP minority government last October.

What was the impact of Chen's election on Taiwan's power configuration, particularly on the relations among the ruling and opposition parties and between the executive and legislative branches? How different are Chen's domestic policies from those of the previous KMT administration? Has the new administration been more successful in handling thorny issues such as "black gold" (corruption) and the nuclear energy dispute? What have been the significant differences between the Chen administration and the previous KMT government of Lee Teng-hui on policy toward China? Has Chen's mainland policy been more provocative or conciliatory to Beijing? What have been the principal differences between the Chen administration and the previous government on Taiwan's foreign policy, particularly in pursuing Taiwan's international status and seeking U.S. support for Taiwan?

At a May 17 seminar on "Taiwan, One Year into the Revolution: A Look at Chen Shui-bian's First Year in Office" sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, four distinguished experts emphasized continuity in Taiwan's domestic politics and its relations with mainland China and the United States. Panelists cautioned, however, that the status quo across the Taiwan Strait may be changed if the Bush administration tilts the balance in U.S. policy away from the PRC and toward Taiwan.

Caleb Clark of Auburn University argued that no revolution has occurred during the first year of the Chen presidency. Despite Chen's previous image as an advocate of Taiwanese independence, he has been more conciliatory toward China than his predecessor Lee Teng-hui, which has led to a "cold peace" between the two nations. This can be attributed to the absence of ethnic polarization in Taiwan regarding national identity and cross-Strait relations. Domestically, Chen's policy of canceling the fourth nuclear power plant was blocked by the opposition parties, which control almost two-thirds of the seats in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan. Ultimately Chen had to retreat to end the crisis between the cabinet and legislature sparked by the nuclear power plant issue. As little change has occurred in the dynamics of Taiwan's politics, no single party is likely to gain a majority in this year's Legislative Yuan election. Chen should be able to wage a highly competitive re-election campaign in 2004, Clark maintained.

Andrew Nathan of Columbia University agreed with Clark that no significant changes could be detected in Taiwan's domestic politics and its relations with mainland China. According to Nathan, the KMT's dominance in the Legislative Yuan and the limits on presidential power stipulated by the constitution have made it impossible for President Chen to effectively promote the DPP's policy agenda. On the other hand, political realignment between Lien Chan's KMT and James Soong's People First Party is unlikely because of personal discord between the two party leaders. While Beijing has increasingly built up its capability to attack Taiwan, it has not used force against Taiwan in the past year because of its assumption that the Chen administration will fail sooner or later. The delicate status quo of the Taiwan Strait, however, can be changed with the consolidation of Chen's power, or a U.S. policy initiative tilting toward Taiwan, Nathan cautioned.

Robert Ross of Boston College discussed cross-Taiwan Strait relations from the perspective of Beijing's perceptions and changing U.S. policy. Although Chen declared that he would not promote Taiwanese independence or revise Taiwan's constitution to accommodate Lee Teng-hui's formula of "special state-to-state relations" with China, Beijing's confidence in Chen is low, due to Taipei's rejection of the one-China principle and its emphasis on Taiwanese identity. Beijing's concern over Chen is relieved only by the growing economic interaction between the two nations, which is perceived by Beijing as an effective way to prevent Chen from challenging the status quo and pursuing Taiwan's independence. Ross observed that the Bush administration has changed U.S.-China policy in favor of Taiwan. While Clinton's policy was to cooperate with Beijing while managing Taiwan's security and creating an environment conducive to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, Bush's policy goal seems to be to end the isolation of Taiwan and to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan military exchanges, considering Taiwan as a strategic asset in containing China.

Kerry Dumbaugh of the Congressional Research Service agreed with the three speakers in her commentary that no revolutionary changes have occurred within Taiwan or across the Taiwan Strait. However, the Bush administration's policy toward China and Taiwan, considering China as a strategic competitor and Taiwan as a non-NATO ally, significantly alters Clinton's policy. It is not certain whether Congress will endorse Bush's policy shift, which could serve as a "wild card" in making Beijing worry about losing Taiwan and thus reshaping the status quo of the Taiwan Strait. It is worthwhile to examine the implications for U.S. interests of the growing economic interaction between China and Taiwan, Dumbaugh concluded.

Following the seminar, two of the four speakers, Cal Clark and Robert Ross, presented similar remarks to a group of senior congressional staffers at a May 18 Capitol Hill breakfast, followed by a lively discussion. The following points were highlighted during the session:

* Despite President Chen's conciliatory gesture toward China, Beijing does not trust him, due to Taipei's rejection of the one-China principle and the increasing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

* The growing economic interaction between China and Taiwan has increased Beijing's leverage in dealing with Taipei and created new pressure on the Chen administration. The "cold peace" between the two sides will continue unless Taipei dramatically changes its current policy toward China.

* The United States does not need to change its China policy. Beijing's success in joining the World Trade Organization and its possible hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games may help to cool down the rising nationalism in the mainland and therefore maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

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