During the previous decade Chinese authorities were apparently extremely unhappy with then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). In mid-2005 then--Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and then a month later People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) visited China.
Itineraries were designed to highlight the common historical bonds between the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) and the KMT. The voyage was meant to be symbolic, rather than a political strategy. Lien’s visit was already planned a year earlier when Lien was expected to win the presidential election.
However, Lien failed for the second time and Chen was re-elected. Lien, who made his career through KMT nominations, still went to meet the Chinese leaders, although without much leverage and only a few weeks after Beijing’s adoption of its hostile “Anti-Secession” Law (allowing China to attack Taiwan should it move toward formal independence). One of the common goals of the CCP and KMT was to isolate Chen to undermine his position and pro-independence politics.
The visit’s immediate fallout for the KMT was evident in opinion polls, which swung favorably toward Lien’s conciliatory gesture. However, there were no major results for Taiwan — like dropping the “one China” precondition for cross-strait negotiations, renouncing the use of force against Taiwan, etc.
Even worse, as Sha Zukang (沙祖康), the outspoken former Chinese ambassador to the UN Office at Geneva and the current head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said: “Taiwan is a Chinese province. Ask chairman Lien and chairman Soong, and they will tell you the same thing.”
In terms of concrete political gains for Taiwan, Lien and Soong’s 2005 visits were dead on arrival. Neither visit seemed to narrow the political division (although it might have recently earned Lien Beijing’s “Confucius Peace Prize”). The missile buildup and international isolation of Taiwan pursued by the Chinese authorities continued. This lack of goodwill might have shown the KMT a few years ago what was obvious to many observers — that too conciliatory politics across the Taiwan Strait is a dead-end street for Taiwan.
The visits’ long-term aftermath was still being felt when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was elected in May 2008. During his campaign, Ma promised to promote economic cooperation with China, which after the election became largely a political agenda. Ma’s diplomacy has been conducted beyond the supervision of democratic institutions. Ma’s all-out engagement and anti-sovereignty policy, which bypasses the government and official institutions, enjoys the support of a shrinking percentage of the populace.
Two years after Ma assumed the presidency, voters gave him a red card in last November’s five special municipality elections. This was partly because of Ma’s unpopular cross-strait policy and it leaves Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on the rise.
What does all this mean for US President Barack Obama’s administration? How can the US profit from the recent developments? Now is a good time to change Washington’s outdated policy on Taiwan, which is based on three decades-old communiques that originate during the height of the Cold War. This approach satisfies neither Washington, Taipei nor Beijing.
Since neither Chen’s nor Ma’s approach worked, some limited US correction would help. The Obama administration might do it the Chinese way and reach out to the DPP to initiate a dialogue by inviting high-ranking DPP members, preferably Tsai and her advisors, to Washington and receiving them in government buildings. Also let the DPP members meet with the Taiwanese community in the US and speak to the US media and public to show that there is an alternative to what Beijing claims about Taiwan.