Last October, as Taiwan's presidential election campaign was heating up for the election in March of this year, I wrote about the status quo in terms of the many polls in Taiwan that asked people's preference on the subject of unification or independence.
My concern then was that so many of the respondents opted for the status quo, in one way or the other, thus making the majority's preference less clear. The polling was seen as Taiwan's internal matter, with important external political and security consequences to be sure, but cloaked primarily as a domestic campaign issue. Speak of status quo today -- and the media and the politicians do in great abundance -- and the term is seen abroad only as a cross-strait issue.
The result of Taiwan's presidential election has put into question the status quo of the past several years. It is getting increasingly difficult to confine the meaning of status quo to a narrow definition of China wanting Taiwan, a Taiwan that does not want to be a part of China and that neither side can unilaterally change. There are too many activities going on between both sides, underneath that broad status quo umbrella, that are meant eventually to meet the same objective of one side or the other. These activities will continue, and are drawing ever closer to a point where the old umbrella can't keep out the rain.
The US was genuinely pleased with the strengthening of democracy when the 2000 election resulted in a change in government, and especially after the new president's inaugural speech of that year. As the election drew near, there were many in the US that expected the pan-blue ticket would return to power. This was based more on the number of votes the pan-blue coalition had obtained in the last election than ideological preference.
But the US government's stance was, traditionally and realistically, that the US could work with whoever is elected.
The assertive strategy of the ruling party in the campaign on the issue of national identity, however, shook the foreign policy establishment in the US. Seeing the issue in cross-strait terms, and ignoring the tendency in America's own elections that winning an election is paramount, tensions in the US-Taiwan relationship escalated. Following the election and after some communication between the two sides took place, tensions receded, but the need for a policy review became apparent. A near consensus on national identity by the people of Taiwan made it clear that the status quo as defined by the poll takers may have changed.
China's behavior in the election in Taiwan was considerably different than in the year 2000. The coercive rhetoric was modified. The result of the latter election, however, came as a much greater surprise. This is understandable -- China's leaders aren't much on democratic elections. But there is more to this surprise than that. "Separatists" in Taiwan were supposed to be in the minority. "Taiwan compatriots" were supposed to be the mainstream. The migration of so many companies, people and money from Taiwan to China was supposed to bring people closer to China. And though it must have hurt, the opposition, despite its shift in campaign rhetoric closer to the Democratic Progressive Party, was more to China's liking than the present ruling party. Here too, then, the need for policy review was becoming apparent.
Although Taiwan, as the recent election demonstrated, had taken a major step toward a consensus on national identity, it is not there yet. During the campaign for the president, introducing the referendum into it brought concern by the Americans, strong opposition to it by China, several domestic challenges by the opposition but strong pressure for it by the pan-green coalition. Aside from Taiwan's domestic politics, and China's general fear of free people's voting, there was another purpose in pushing for a referendum. It was meant to encourage awareness by the people of the security dangers Taiwan faces.
There are different views on all of this, but the government's concern in Taipei (and among those people in Washington involved in Taiwan's security), is how to cope with legislators -- mostly opposition but others as well -- who oppose providing the resources for modernization of the military; organizations and NGOs who place a higher priority elsewhere; and the younger voters who take for granted their separate identity and have little sense of urgency about the danger Taiwan faces.
In fact, the latter is Taiwan's greatest danger as the government pursues legal reform and efforts to cope with cross-Strait relations.
China, as usual, has procrastinated over the present cross-strait tensions. It may have to continue doing so as the cross-strait issue is taking on a more complicated color -- besides Taiwan, the behavior of the people in Hong Kong, and now, perhaps, a different Singapore may be a trend relevant to its ambitions. While China waits for the elections in the US and Taiwan this year, it voices strong complaints about the US role in these matters. What we hear now is that the US should stop its arms sales to Taiwan, or stop supporting Taiwan in the international arena, or in permitting transit/visits of Taiwanese officials. These are old complaints, that Beijing is well aware are non-starters. The reason for this might be based on Beijing's domestic political problems or a way of trying to limit any hostile rhetoric from forming in the American election campaign.
The US tabled its strategy following Taiwan's election in testimony before the Congress on April 21. The US reiterated standing policies such as "one China" policy commitments to the three communiques and the TRA, a peaceful resolution of the cross-strait problems, the six assurances and no unilateral change to Taiwan's status. It also included some new Taiwan policies -- American involvement in making judgments on provocations and specific efforts at political reform, among others.
According to an article about National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's visit to Beijing, she suggested a "higher level of dialogue" was needed between the US and China. If this is true, and its purpose is to better cope with the many differences between the two countries, one subject they will surely include is the US-Taiwan relationship. That would contradict one of the six assurances given to Taipei. In addition, if sensitive and difficult but important decisions need a higher level of dialogue, it should be true of Taiwan as well.
Next year, after the elections in the US and Taiwan are history, and China, perhaps, has settled its own internal differences, how best to address the status quo in cross-strait terms, and how best to work with a Taiwan that has largely decided its own identity may become clearer.
Nat Bellocchi is the former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special advisor to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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