A new identity without a new state
The referendum issue has entered yet another phase. The government has rewritten the referendum questions -- from the original demand for China to withdraw its missiles deployed along its coastal areas -- to whether Taiwan should purchase more advanced anti-missile weapons, and establish a cross-strait confidence-building mechanism.
\nBut the alliance of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) questions whether this referendum meets the criteria for the president to hold a "preventive referendum." They believe President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has acted in contravention of the law.
\nObviously, the government switched the focus of the referendum questions from China to ease massive US pressure. But Washington repeatedly stresses that its concern is about Taiwan's intentions in holding a referendum. The US still opposes the referendum if Taiwan's intention is to set a precedent for a future referendum on Taiwan independence.
\nWhat is the Taiwanese people's reaction to this significant event? They hope both the presidential election and the referendum will be over soon. After months of wrangling between the two camps, this reaction is normal. Still, the dispute over Taiwan's future will not end after the presidential election. Moreover, the differences in the candidates' views can push the populace to think about Taiwan's future.
\nAfter Chen proposed the referendum and a new constitution, he not only caused an uproar in Taiwan, but also shocked the US, which immediately expressed its concern. But the government, backed by public support, became even more aggressive. Some therefore predicted that Washington would give Chen the cold shoulder during his US stopover last November. Surprisingly, Chen's "glorious trip" ended gloriously. Not only did he receive a human rights award, deliver a speech and attend large-scale banquets with overseas Taiwanese, but New York dignitaries like Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not shy away from the media after meeting Chen. I interpret this reception as a US policy of "a new identity without a new state."
\nChina's economy is growing rapidly and its military power is expanding. Its influence on Northeast and Southeast Asian countries has increased significantly, making it a challenger to the US hegemony in Asia. Before his US visit, Chen already made it known to the US government that he would reiterate his "five noes" publicly, making clear that the proposed referendum and new constitution would only deepen and institutionalize democracy.
\nSince Taiwan was not proposing a new state, and because it would be more able to tug at China's elbow with its new constitution and new identity, the Bush administration, with a hawkish ideology, supported Taiwan's posing a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to some degree.
\nChen's election momentum received a great boost after his visit. To reverse the trend, the blue camp decided to support the referendum. Before the Referendum Law (公投法) was passed by the Legislative Yuan, Washington strongly pressured Taipei to ensure that Taiwan would only pursue a new identity and not a new state.
\nUnexpectedly, Chen made a further move, demanding that the government hold a "preventive referendum" on election day. Beijing, already nervous when the blue camp stopped insisting on the "one China" principle, believed that a referendum would be a prelude to Taiwanese independence. To avoid repeating the mistake of arousing bad blood among the Taiwanese people by direct military threats, which previously boosted the "reactionary" forces, Beijing tried to pressure Taipei through Washington.
\nTaiwan's democracy and a new constitution will increase its international visibility and help the US contain China. But if Taiwan wants to build a new state, it will provoke a military conflict with China and inevitably drag the US into the fight. This is not a situation that the US is pleased to see at a time when it is busy dealing with the reconstruction of Iraq and North Korea's nuclear threat. US President George W. Bush therefore issued a serious warning during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's (溫家寶) visit that Chen should not attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait unilaterally.
\nWhen both Taiwan's biggest threat and its most important protector are issuing warnings, it is time for the Taiwanese to think about their future.
\nBoth camps say that they will provide a better future for the Taiwanese people. But where is Taiwan's future? Where are the blueprints of the candidates?
\nDoes Taiwan's future lie in the pursuit of a normal "state"? Can the US policy of "a new identity without a new state," which is consistent with US interests, also gain optimum interests for the Taiwanese people?
\nTaiwan independence activists know that, with its military power growing by the day, China will enjoy military supremacy across the Taiwan Strait by 2010. They also believe that China is unlikely to attack Taiwan before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which is considered a symbol of peace. If Taiwan does not promptly accomplish its independence before 2008, the chance of success will be slim in the future.
\nNevertheless, international political observers all agree that although China understands the high price for attacking Taiwan, and hence will try to avoid it, Beijing will definitely be "forced" to use force should Taiwan declare independence.
\nIn addition to the threat of military destruction, can Taiwan continue to prosper in the highly interactive and competitive globalized economy if it is cut off from one-fourth of its export market and disconnected from the world's largest market, even if it really accomplishes independence?
\nDue to the asymmetry in political clout and geographical size, and the difference in economic growth rates, people may fear that time is on China's side. Don't forget: The economic gap between China's urban and rural areas, and between its coastal and interior areas, as well as the gap between economic and political freedoms have all created pressure for China to change. The competition between Taiwan and China does not exist in isolation.
\nI believe that "a new identity without a new state" can be Taiwan's strategy in the short to medium term. The so-called "new identity" is not only international but also domestic.
\nThe cultural revival policies of the local and central governments over the past few years -- such as teaching materials on local geography and culture, native language courses, and community-building -- have produced results. The public now have a deeper understanding of their hometowns and cultures, and are more willing to devote themselves to the cause.
\nThe strengthening of such a new identity will help increase social and civic awareness and to consolidate the Taiwanese people's unity. It will also create the economic value of differentiation in the global competition. Civic awareness will further change Taiwan's political culture and distinguish democratic Taiwan from dictatorial China in the international community.
\nFor the time being, Taiwan's interests lie in ensuring the continued existence of its ability and right to choose, or even creating room for other possibilities besides unification and independence. Wholehearted consolidation of a new identity is a practical and feasible direction for Taiwan. It is also welcomed by its most important supporter.
\nCho Hui-wan is an assistant professor in the Graduate Institute of International Politics at National Chung Hsing University, and is currently a visiting professor at Duke University.
\n TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG
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