By Robert M. Hathaway

At a March 7th Capitol Hill breakfast seminar, two distinguished political scientists met with senior congressional staff to discuss Taiwan's March 18th presidential election and the election's policy implications for the United States. Seminar participants focused particular attention on Taiwan's relations with the People's Republic of China, and the manner in which the Taiwanese election might affect that delicate relationship.

Both speakers -- John F. Copper of Rhodes College (Memphis) and Michael Y.M. Kau of Brown University -- also highlighted the significance of the election as an important step in Taiwan's political democratization. If the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins the election, Taiwan will experience the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in its history.

Copper and Kau agreed that the three main presidential candidates in Taiwan -- Lien Chan of the ruling Nationalist Party or KMT, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, and the independent James Soong -- advocate very similar policies on the fundamental issues involving Taiwan's security and external relations. All three propose that Taiwan should expand contacts with China while deferring talks about reunification until China embraces political democracy. All three call for greater Taiwanese participation in the international community.

Both Copper and Kau found it difficult to predict the victor in this weekend's election since the polls, while showing a large number of undecided voters, indicate a virtual dead heat among the three top contenders. Kau suggested, however, that the ruling party candidate and current vice president, Lien Chan, was likely to pick up the bulk of the undecided voters, and that this would propel him to a narrow triumph.

No matter who wins on March 18, both scholars emphasized, one should not expect, nor be worried about, any dramatic or adventurous changes in Taipei's policy toward either Beijing or Washington. A new Taiwan government is likely to maintain the fundamental course of prudence, caution and gradualism in dealing with the PRC, and continue to pursue close cooperation with the United States.

Taiwan's presidential election elevates the issue of Taiwan for U.S. foreign policy. Both speakers referred to Beijing's recent white paper that warns that China will use military force against Taiwan if Taipei refuses indefinitely to negotiate with Beijing on reunification. Yet polls in Taiwan demonstrate that most Taiwanese do not favor unification with China on the basis of Beijing's formula of "one country, two systems." Copper observed that Taiwan has become the most difficult problem in the Washington-Beijing relationship since it pits China's claim to sovereignty over Taiwan against America's support for democracy. Kau cautioned that the Chinese white paper may cost Beijing the chance to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and inadvertently facilitate passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act by the U.S. Congress and the approval by the White House of more arms sales to Taiwan, actions that would clearly complicate the already difficult relations between Washington and Beijing.

The inaugural event in the Asia Program's Capitol Hill breakfast seminar series, this program offered a timely assessment of Taiwan's upcoming presidential election and the election's policy implications for the United States. The purpose of this series is to expose senior congressional staff to serious scholarly analysis relating to China, Taiwan, and U.S. relations with China and Taiwan. Briefing topics are chosen for their relevance to issues on the congressional calendar.