Asia Program

Events

The Taiwanese Presidential Election and Its Implications for Washington-Beijing-Taipei Relations

March 09, 2004 // 2:30pm4:30pm

As Taiwan's March 20 presidential election approaches, policy debates are heating up between two camps: "Pan-Green" led by incumbent president Chen Shui-bian and "Pan-Blue" led by Kuomintang's Lien Chan. What are the significant differences, if any, between the two camps regarding Taiwan's national identity, defense strategy, and relations with China? What are Beijing's possible responses to the election outcome, and implications for the United States? Four speakers examined these and related issues at a March 9 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program. Earlier in the day, Li and Weng spoke on the same topic at a Capitol Hill breakfast seminar for congressional staff.

Goldstein highlighted the unstable relations across the Taiwan Strait, predicting a "perfect storm" over that region during and after the presidential election if the current trend continues. In Taiwan, the growth of ethnic identity has accelerated since 2000, creating momentum for Taiwanese independence. In China, no leader can show weakness and allow the island to "drift away." In the United States, the Taiwan issue has become salient in domestic politics during an election year, reducing Washington's leverage for flexibly dealing with Taipei and Beijing. If Chen Shui-bian is reelected, maintaining stable Washington-Beijing-Taipei relations will become even more difficult.

Li argued that a certain degree of turmoil might occur at the local level in Taiwan around March 20, as the referendum has become a heated ethnic issue, thanks to the Pan-Green's strategic mobilization. While the Pan-Blue's goal is to ensure "an independent Taiwan" by maintaining the status quo, the Pan-Green is more eager to realize de jure "Taiwanese independence" through constitutional reform and the national referendum. If the Pan-Blue wins the election, it is more likely to resume dialogue with Beijing. If the Pan-Green's Chen Shui-bian wins again, he will continue to push forth a new constitution scheduled for 2006, and the stalemate in cross-Strait dialogue is likely to continue, Li observed.

Weng pointed out that growing economic engagement with China is paradoxical in light of increased calls for Taiwanese independence. According to Weng, this paradox has impacted the two camps' campaign strategies. Both the Pan-Blue and the Pan-Green have advocated establishing direct economic and transportation links with mainland China. The Pan-Green is pursuing Taiwanese independence through an institutionalized referendum. Interestingly, the Pan-Blue for the first time also declared it would consider independence as one option for Taiwan's future. As Beijing's one-China principle is being challenged through the democratic process, both Washington and Beijing have to adjust their policies toward Taiwan.

Pillsbury offered his commentary on the three speakers' remarks at the end of the seminar. Though a "perfect storm" may be approaching, a real war may not occur soon, thanks to a knowledgeable "dream team" of Beijing diplomats and Taipei's willingness to engage with Beijing. It is incorrect to simply assume that the Pan-Blue as a whole is reluctant to purchase more arms from the United States or is more capable to open dialogue with Beijing, Pillsbury concluded.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
Ph: (202) 691-4020

 

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