Commentary

Tougher Than It Looks

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Asia on April 12, 2006.

China is making a big mistake in pinning its Taiwan policy on waiting for a more moderate successor to President Chen Shui-bian. The reality is that most Taiwanese will never accept reunification with a Communist regime — irrespective of who is the island’s president.

Beijing seems to believe that it can blame every cross-strait problem on President Chen and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Hence the enthusiasm with which it is courting the Kuomintang Party (KMT), confident that separatist sentiment will suddenly fade away if the opposition party wins the next presidential polls in 2008. That explains its high-profile reception for former KMT leader Lien Chan, when he visited the mainland last year. Chinese leaders feted Mr. Lien for reaffirming that the KMT is committed to eventual reunification. Mr. Lien will be back in Beijing for another visit later this month, when he is expected to receive another warm welcome.

His successor, Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou, has won praise from Beijing for similar comments during a recent visit to the United States. Not only did Mr. Ma endorse eventual reunification, but he suggested calming cross-straits tensions by striking an interim agreement between Taiwan and the mainland to preserve the status quo.

But Chinese leaders should examine the fine text of Mr. Ma’s statements more carefully before they rush to embrace him. There are two very important caveats to the Taipei mayor’s embrace of reunification. First, he has emphasized that reunification can only take place if mainland China becomes fully democratic. Mr. Ma — and most KMT members — have no interest in having Taiwan unify with China in its current, authoritarian incarnation. Second, reunification could only take place with the explicit consent of the Taiwanese people. In other words, Taiwan would have a veto. For all his talk of reunification, Mr. Ma also agrees that Taiwanese voters must be allowed to opt for independence if that is what they one day decide they desire.

All of the KMT’s caveats are anathema to Beijing. Beijing’s political elite has no intention of giving up the Communist Party’s monopoly of power and transforming China into a Western-style democracy. Chinese leaders have repeatedly emphasized that Taiwanese voters cannot have a veto over whether reunification takes place. And Taiwanese independence is an option that Beijing considers utterly illegitimate, even if that is what the island’s population might desire.

Rhetoric apart, there is not such a big difference between Mr. Ma’s substantive positions and the policies President Chen’s administration has pursued. The KMT is simply more subtle and conciliatory in its language, and more cautious about actions that might provoke Beijing. But the bottom line is that reunification would not be significantly more likely under a KMT administration than a DPP one — because Taiwan is a democracy, so it all depends on the wishes of the Taiwanese people. A recent survey by a major research institute in Taiwan showed that a majority of respondents reject the notion that the island must eventually reunify with China, while an overwhelming majority believe that Taiwan’s political future should be determined solely by the Taiwanese people.

The KMT can not afford to ignore such sentiments if it wants to survive, let alone see Mr. Ma win the 2008 election as the party’s presidential candidate. That means there is no prospect of the party agreeing to negotiate reunification based on Beijing’s formula of “one country, two systems,” especially as it is only a slightly enhanced version of the Hong Kong model. But the problem is that is precisely what Beijing expects if the KMT win the presidency in 2008.

Until now, Beijing has been able to delude itself that the “Taiwan problem” is all due to President Chen and the DPP. At some point, the Beijing regime will have to realize that its quarrel is really with the bulk of the Taiwanese people. Ironically, a KMT victory in 2008 might deepen rather than ease tensions in the Taiwan Strait by making that reality undeniable.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.