Since Taiwan's political democratization starting in 1986, the Constitution of the Republic of China has experienced six rounds of revision. In recent years, there has been a growing sentiment in Taiwan to create a new constitution through national referendum. Many people in China and the United States are concerned that such a move might be a watershed leading to Taiwan's de jure independence from mainland China, thus bringing the two sides of the Taiwan Strait into a disastrous war.

What is the rationale behind Taipei's pursuit of a new constitution? What are the different calculations of Taiwan's politicians and ordinary people on such a controversial issue? What will be the advantages and disadvantages if Taiwan seeks to redefine its sovereignty and territory in the new constitution? What are Beijing's possible responses to Taiwan's constitutional reform, and the implications for the United States? Does the United States have a role to play in influencing Taiwan's constitutional reform, or the methods by which such reform is carried out?

At a July 21 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, four speakers explored Taiwan's constitutional reform from both domestic and external perspectives. Two of them, Yeh and deLisle, spoke on the same topic at a Capitol Hill breakfast meeting for congressional staff earlier in the day.

Yeh argued that Taiwan needs a new constitution because the previous six rounds of constitutional revision were undertaken to solve immediate political problems and eventually created more institutional deadlocks and political instabilities. As Taiwan has been transformed into a full-fledged democracy, it is time for political elites and ordinary citizens to engage in lengthy and comprehensive deliberations—instead of short-term political bargains among political parties—for a new constitution. Yeh contended that the difference between constitution-amending and constitution-making is actually very slight, and a referendum is required for making a new constitution. An updated list of human rights and more effective mechanisms for human rights protection should be incorporated into the new constitution. He concluded that a new constitution would enhance Taiwan's effective governance, promote deliberative democracy, and help to develop a new Taiwanese national identity.

DeLisle contended that the principal arguments offered by Taipei for why Taiwan needs to undertake constitutional revision or replacement involve questions of Taiwan's status and cross-Strait relations, particularly when Taipei indicates its goal of making Taiwan a normal state. According to deLisle, differences between making a new constitution and revising the current one are legally and politically significant, as a new constitution is often associated with a new state. Moreover, to change or replace the constitution through a referendum or other direct popular action would open the door wider to more radical substantive changes to the constitution, including redefining Taiwan's territory. The controversy over Taiwan's constitutional reforms poses new challenges for U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan, creating a dilemma between U.S. pursuit of its "realist" national interests and support for democratic values.

Wachman maintained that Beijing perceives Taipei's constitutional "re-engineering" as provocative because it believes President Chen Shui-bian has a "timetable for independence" and the introduction of a new constitution represents one giant step toward that objective. From this point of view, Beijing has done nothing to signal its population that accommodating Taiwan's determination to remain autonomous may better serve the national interest and enhance the possibility of China's eventual unification. According to Wachman, mutual accommodation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is still possible if Taiwan can persuade Beijing that it has not foreclosed some types of association with China. The United States should urge Taiwan that it cannot be independent so long as it is dependent on the U.S. military umbrella for survival. It may be time for the United States to contemplate how a reduction in arms sales to Taiwan can serve as an incentive to Beijing to accept Taiwan's autonomous status.

Glaser argued that Taiwan's inspiration for a new constitution is greatly constrained by Beijing's opposition on this sensitive issue. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Eastern European nations were democratized and wrote a new constitution. In contrast, Taiwan still faces "a 800-pound goliath" who has drawn clear red lines against Taiwanese independence and constitution-making. It is because of U.S. intervention that Taipei has not foreclosed the door for unification with the mainland in the future, nor redefined its territory as limited to the island. However, one should not rule out the possibility that President Chen Shui-bian may eventually resort to a referendum for constitution-making. To prevent a war between China and Taiwan, the two sides should resort to negotiation and confidence building, starting with small moves, such as cooperation on science and technology or on anti-pollution of waters in the Taiwan Strait.

This seminar discussed both domestic inspirations for and external constraints on Taiwan's constitutional reform. While the four speakers all recognized the inevitability of such a move, they varied on its final direction as well as possible implications for Washington-Taipei-Beijing relations. In other words, to what degree Taiwan's constitutional reform is—or should be—constrained by external factors remains debatable and thus deserves more exploration.