Tue, Mar 29, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan must stress its democracy

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎

China's "Anti-Secession" Law has revived debates among academics, think tanks, and government experts in Washington about China's rise as a major power and its questionable behavior in dealing with other countries. In Taiwan, the atmosphere is about the dangers of this move by China, and the need for its people and political parties to unify and oppose it. Aside from this, however, has been the largely successful effort by Taiwan to remind the international community of its democracy, and the dangers the unilateral imposition of the law poses to peace in East Asia.

Influencing the international community these days is difficult on almost any subject. In the past, Taiwan largely depended on the US to help gain support in this area. It was nonetheless difficult even with that help, and with the changes that are taking place now, gaining international support has become even more complex and difficult.

In the 1980s, Taiwan's weight in dealing with the international community, including the US, was based on its growing economic strength. Inevitably there were many trade disputes that had to be dealt with, and even more imposing for Taiwan was the task of gaining access to international institutions. Nonetheless, it was the basis for the close relationship between Taiwan and the US.

In the early 1990s, I reported on the rapidly changing political atmosphere in Taiwan. It was clear then that democracy would quickly replace economics as the fundamental basis for the relationship. Unfortunately, while this was praised as being the right thing to do, it also was seen as unhelpful for the US in developing a better relationship with China, and trade therefore continued to be the focus of the bilateral relationship.

There were several actions that took place during this time that demonstrated the difficulties the US would have in coping with Taiwan's democratization. When the National Assembly amended the Constitution to require the direct election of the president, I reported that in the forthcoming 1996 election this would legitimize Taiwan's president. Though important in the nuanced world of cross-strait relations, this change was largely ignored.

The Taiwan Policy Review of 1995 had an excellent summary of the reasons for the review (Taiwan's rise as a democracy), but the results produced in the document did little to show US encouragement for democratization.

The visit to Cornell by then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in 1995 demonstrated that as a democracy, Taiwan felt it had to raise its profile both for domestic political reasons and to strengthen critical international relationships. This of course was in conflict with US policy that Taiwan should keep a low profile to avoid tensions for itself and difficulties for America in the US-China relationship. But more important was the beginnings of greater confidence of voters in Taiwan to openly debate such heretofore sensitive issues as cross-strait relations -- implying that Taiwan's democracy was taking root.

When the new government surprisingly, but peacefully, came to power in 2000, the US' attention was on the problems a pro-independence ruling party would make for US-China relations. As a result, the US intervened in Taiwan's domestic politics even before the new president was inaugurated, to ensure that highly sensitive issues that impacted on US interests were safely managed. While the US hailed the first legitimate turnover of government in Taiwan as a major step forward in its democratization, it was also the beginning of a more involved US policy of intervention that guarded the status quo, but that impacted on Taiwan's democracy as well.

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