Inside Track: Strait Talk

January 15, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the National Interest (Online) on January 15, 2008.

The conventional wisdom in American foreign policy and media circles is that the smashing victory by the Kuomintang Party (KMT) in the January 12 elections for Taiwan’s national legislature will mean a dramatic easing of tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is, at best, only partially correct. In the long run, the KMT’s resurgence will merely postpone, not eliminate, a confrontation with Beijing.

True, the rout of President Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was an emphatic repudiation of Chen’s performance in office. But whether it was a repudiation of his assertive policies toward Beijing is less certain. Taiwan’s subpar economic performance during Chen’s eight years as president, combined with a cascade of ethical and financial scandals that implicated even the president’s immediate family, seemed to antagonize voters more than his cross‐​strait policies did.

It remains to be seen whether the KMT’s legislative landslide will translate into victory in the March presidential election. KMT nominee Ma Ying‐​jeou is well ahead in the polls and probably will defeat DPP nominee Frank Hsieh, but an upset is possible. If Ma wins the presidency, the conventional wisdom is probably right: There will be a serious effort on his part to dampen tensions with Beijing. In particular, Ma is almost certain to avoid the abrasive policies that became a staple of Chen’s administration. For example, we are not likely to see a continuation of the campaign to apply for membership in the United Nations under the name Taiwan. Perhaps most important, the strident rhetoric about Taiwan’s ultimate goal being permanent political separation from the mainland will come to an end. Such policy changes should bring a sense of relief in Beijing—and in Washington.

Over the longer term, though, even a KMT‐​dominated government is not likely to make a decisive difference in resolving the island’s ambiguous political status and the international tensions that it generates.

And Beijing’s level of frustration will ease little, if at all. Ever since Chen was elected president of Taiwan in 2000, the PRC’s strategy has been to wait for the election of a more moderate successor. The prevailing assumption in Beijing seems to be that its troubles with Taiwan are entirely the result of separatist agitation by Chen and his followers. Under a KMT administration, so the logic goes, independence sentiment in Taiwan will fade and prospects for the island’s reunification with the mainland will greatly improve.

If they examine the KMT’s position carefully, however, Chinese leaders are likely to be disillusioned. Although Ma does favor eventual reunification, there are three important caveats. First, reunification can take place only if mainland China becomes fully democratic. Ma—and most KMT members—have no interest in having Taiwan unify with China in its current, authoritarian incarnation. Second, reunification can occur only with the explicit consent of the Taiwanese people. In other words, Taiwan would have a veto. Finally, the KMT has reluctantly conceded that all options—even independence—must be available to Taiwanese voters when it comes time to make a decision. All of those caveats are anathema to Beijing.

The reality is that there is not a huge difference between Ma’s positions and the policies that Chen’s government has pursued. The KMT is simply more subtle and conciliatory in its language, and more cautious about actions that might provoke Beijing. In the short run, the latter is quite important. Whereas Chen and the DPP have repeatedly pushed the envelope on asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty, and thereby threatened to disrupt the fragile status quo in the Taiwan Strait (much to Washington’s dismay), a KMT government is committed to preserving the status quo. In the long run, though, reunification would not be much more likely under a KMT administration than a DPP one. And it remains to be seen how long Beijing will be content with a status quo that maintains Taiwan’s existence as a de facto independent state.

The KMT’s equivocation about reunification is not surprising given the attitude of the Taiwanese people. A March 2007 survey by a major research institute in Taiwan showed that a majority of respondents rejected the notion that the island must eventually reunify with China, and an overwhelming majority believed that Taiwan’s political future should be determined solely by the Taiwanese people. Since the KMT wants to prosper politically, it cannot ignore such sentiments. If the party ever agreed to Beijing’s formula of “one country, two systems” (essentially an enhanced version of the Hong Kong model), it would risk being repudiated by the Taiwanese public.

But serious negotiations for ultimate reunification on the basis of that model are what Beijing expects from a KMT administration. One wonders what will happen if those hopes fail to materialize.

At some point, the PRC regime will have to acknowledge that it has a problem with the views of most Taiwanese, not just a handful of pro‐​independence agitators. Ironically, a period of KMT political dominance may ultimately deepen tensions in the Taiwan Strait by making that reality undeniable.

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