By the time Taiwan is electing its new president on March 18, voters in the US will very likely know who the candidates for the two major parties will be in the elections for the US presidency in November. But the uncertainties over the policies that will direct the relationships between the US, Taiwan and the PRC that the elections in the US and Taiwan generates will persist well into the year 2001.
The uncertainties are caused not only by the question of which candidate will prevail in both elections, but also the size of the vote the winner obtains, and the extent issues relevant to these relationships are debated. In Taiwan, in past elections, domestic issues dominated debates, though at the national level, and especially the presidential elections, under the surface, cross-strait relations were always a very important factor in the voters' decisions. This year, as democracy brings increasing confidence to the voters of Taiwan to demand a more open debate on the fundamental issue by the candidates, the voters decision is more likely to hinge on their perception of who best can manage this relationship. And, on the other hand, the extent of the winner's flexibility on the issue will depend on the size of his vote.
In the US, foreign policy is seldom a major issue in presidential elections. It may gain somewhat more attention this time, as President Clinton seeks to establish a major foreign policy victory as a legacy of his presidency (there is little likelihood he could do so on any domestic issue), and as the Republicans see his foreign policy record as vulnerable to attack during the campaign. The debate on the issue of globalization could have an impact on Taiwan, but it will be important for the US and the rest of the world as well. All issues that include China, however, such as WTO accessions and security issues, could have a substantial impact on Taiwan.
With the Republicans in control of the Congressional agenda, the debates on these controversial issues are likely to be deliberately prolonged to carry some of them through the primaries and into the party nominating conventions. The intermingling of domestic political objectives with foreign policy issues, always present but usually less apparent, will provide limitless opportunities for the speculation that creates greater uncertainties.
Then there is the length of time all of these uncertainties will persist. In Taiwan, once the elections have been held, the new president will have some two months to appoint the personnel for his administration. Some time after the inauguration, the new administration, having settled in and begun to make clearer where it wishes to go in pursuing its policies, will still face important uncertainties in the American relationship (and perhaps in Japan as well).
In the US, the system of primaries that led up to party conventions (where one of the party candidates is nominated), has been substantially altered. More populous states have moved their primary dates forward to February or March to gain more influence on the party selection. In the past, the complaint had been that small states (such as Iowa or New Hampshire), in earlier primaries, had gained too much influence. Now the criticism is that by having the larger state primaries so early, most candidates will have to withdraw before they have had adequate time to become known to the voters.
The result, this year, is that by March 14, only a few days before the elections in Taiwan, it will be possible to establish with some certainty just who the party nominees are likely to be. What these primary "winners" will do in the period before the party conventions take place (in July and August), is not clear. The conventions themselves, usually a mixture of serious interparty bargaining and negotiations, with some socializing on the side, will more likely become a briefer period of negotiations and a lot more socializing.
One can recall that when the Clinton Administration was being formed after the elections of 1992, the "clearance" process, established by the new president to assure an appointee would not embarrass the new administration by a discovery of some misbehavior, or perception of misbehavior, in his/her background, caused delays of weeks or even months. The bureaucracy carries on during this period, of course, but the inevitable "policy reviews" take considerable time. So realistically, some changes in US, policy directions will not be apparent until well into the year 2001.
That is, for over a year, we will all go through a period of speculation, of intense efforts, by lobbyists, think tanks, individuals, all trying to influence government policies -- or securing a position in it, and of getting to know new people in new places. There will be much wasted effort by those who come up with ideas that "reinvent the wheel" by calling it with another name. But there will also be the advantages gained by democracy of having new people take a fresh look at old problems without the burden of entrenched egos.
But in this year-long period of democratic renewal, one rather substantial player in the US-Taiwan-PRC relationships, Beijing, is doing no such thing. In fact, it is doing everything possible to stop this happening to itself. For them, renewal and fresh ideas in domestic political terms are enemies. They may see these circumstances in other countries as opportunities for their external objectives.
Taiwan has been through this before. So has the US. This should not weaken concerns about PRC reactions in both countries, though one has to hope Beijing is beginning to understand that creating a crisis in the midst of a legitimate transition in either Taiwan or the US, will almost inevitably have an effect opposite to the one intended. In both countries, domestic debates on China or cross-strait issues are important, heated and emotional. Wise counsel and common sense by leaders and voters have prevailed in the past, and likely will do so again.
Nat Bellocchi (
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