As Taiwan gears up for its next legislative and presidential elections scheduled for Jan. 14, the debates about domestic and foreign policy issues are also heating up.
While many voters will decide for whom to cast their ballot on the basis of such issues as the economy, jobs, social welfare and good governance, one issue that weighs heavily on the minds of US policymakers is how the outcome of the vote will affect Taiwan’s relations with China.
As I wrote in an earlier article, the present “reduction of tension” is artificial in nature, as it is predicated on policies that give China the impression that Taiwan is moving toward China, increasing the belief that at some time in the not too distant future Beijing will be able to force Taiwan into some kind of political unification (“The myth about reducing tension,” May 14, 2010, page 8).
Taiwan has brought about this temporary reduction of tension through a policy of rapprochement which has focused on “easier” agreements on exchanges, tourism, cross-strait flights, etc, culminating in the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), while the more “difficult” issues, such as sovereignty and political ties, are being postponed.
While these agreements may have given Taiwan some respite, they were also controversial, as in the eyes of critics they have tied the nation too closely to China. In other words, they effectively gave Beijing more leverage over Taiwan, while decreasing the nation’s room to maneuver internationally.
In particular, one concept that has been used as a basis for this rapprochement needs to be revisited: the so-called “1992 consensus.” The phrase itself sounds innocuous enough: Both sides acknowledge that there is “one China,” with each side retaining its own interpretation of what “one China” means.
However, the concept is controversial because former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) has said that there never was such a consensus and China has never acknowledged that it accepts different interpretations.
Instead of continuing to battle over this term in the run-up to the elections, it would be better for the political parties in Taiwan to come up with a longer-term consensus that focuses exclusively on Taiwan.
Taiwanese are rightfully proud of their democratic achievements and these accomplishments need to be defended.
Such a “Taiwan consensus” could include the following elements: One, Taiwan is a free nation and its democracy needs to be protected. Two, Taiwan wants to live in peace with all its neighbors. This also means that these neighbors need to respect Taiwan’s sovereignty. Three, Taiwan aspires to be a vibrant member of the international community and asks to be accepted as such. Four, relations with China need to be transparent, conducted on an equal footing, without the threat of force.
In view of the significant differences between the political and social systems in Taiwan and China, it cannot be expected that Beijing will easily accept Taiwan for what it is — a lively democracy that wants to chart its own course and determine its own future without undue pressure from China. Indeed, Taiwan’s mere existence as a democracy is a thorn in Beijing’s side.
That is why it is essential that the US and other democratic friends of Taiwan make it crystal clear that they will stand by the nation when it exercises its newfound freedom to elect a new legislature and president in January.