Ex-AIT chair warns on political system

‘OPEN QUESTION’::Richard Bush said in Taipei that it remains to be seen whether Taiwanese would utilize their democratic system to fend off the advances of China

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  Staff Reporter

Sun, Jun 26, 2011 - Page 1

Former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) chairman Richard Bush yesterday expressed concern about whether Taiwan’s democratic system, which he said is “polarized” and “divided,” could withstand Beijing’s efforts to bring about unification.

Before wrapping up his short visit to Taipei, Bush remarked on the state of cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s democratic system during a roundtable discussion at a symposium entitled “A Spectacular Century: The Republic of China (ROC) Centennial Democracy Forums.”

In his speech, Bush discussed how the development of cross-strait relations might have constrained the choices available to Taiwan’s political system, examining how changes to the balance of power might have impacted Taiwan’s democracy.

Regarding de jure independence, Bush said he has found that this choice for Taiwan’s future might possibly still exist, but it has been constrained.

“My conclusion is very simple: That 15 years after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, China effectively deters Taiwan from making this choice — de jure independence. It builds up its military power in a significant way and is able when necessary to stimulate the United States to get involved in this issue,” he said.

Bush said he was not very worried about the possible impact asymmetric economic interdependence between China and Taiwan might have.

He also downplayed fears that Taiwanese businesspeople operating in China have sought to exert influence on political issues in the Taiwanese political system.

“[Taiwanese businesspeople] may seek to have influence on economic policy, as you expect, but so far they have not acted politically,” he said.

Regarding the possibility that economic asymmetry could make Taiwan vulnerable to Beijing withdrawing trade to add issues to the cross-strait agenda that hitherto have not been included, Bush said that “if they [China] believe that time is on their side, then economic coercion is far less likely.”

“The available research here suggests that interdependence works both ways and that vulnerability is mutual,” Bush said, adding that economic sanctions against Taiwan would hurt China as well.

Bush disagreed with claims by Taiwanese opposition parties that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has somehow undermined Taiwan’s sovereignty by signing 15 cross-strait agreements since coming to office.

“My conclusion is that actually the principle of ‘mutual non-denial’ is operating in these agreements and in these negotiations, and more significantly, cross-strait relations have been becoming increasingly intergovernmental, and that in a way strengthen Taiwan’s sovereignty,” he said.

Bush also examined the impact of cross-strait relations on Taiwan’s democracy from the perspective of the will of the public.

“[Whether] Taiwan’s public, through the democratic system, will maintain the will to preserve its status quo — to resist China’s intrigue — I think that’s an open question,” he said.

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Bush, who now serves as the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asia Policy Studies, said that he takes seriously the challenges that Taiwan’s political system faces when China has been working to create a situation in which “economy determines politics.”

“So this raises a question: What does Taiwan and its political system have to do to strengthen the public’s confidence and maintain the preference for status quo as opposed to some form of unification?” he asked.

Toward the end of his speech, Bush made mention of how the “one country, two systems” formula works in Hong Kong, saying that the approach “does keep certain outcomes off the agenda.”

“It [one country, two systems] is structured in a way that has made it impossible for a democratic party leader to become chief executive and for the democratic party to win a majority in the legislative council. And no one knows whether China would seek to apply that model to Taiwan in a unification scenario, but it’s an important point of reference,” Bush said.

In his concluding remarks, Bush said that Taiwan needs to improve its democratic system so that it better reflects the views of Taiwanese and is more responsive to the many challenges that society faces.

“I would like to say that political leaders need to work together to foster a better consensus on Taiwan’s core interests and how to protect them. As long as the political system remaines polarized and divided, that consensus cannot be built, and Taiwan cannot face the challenges of the cross-strait relations in an appropriate way,” Bush said.