Taiwan Enters a New Era: Prospects and Implications

On June 5, 2000, the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy hosted a conference that explored issues raised by Chen Shui-bian's recent inauguration as Taiwan's second democratically elected president.  These issues included: How has Chen Shui-bian's victory reshaped politics on Taiwan?  How will this new political era affect prospects for peace and stability across the Taiwan strait?  What role can or should the United States play in this process?

This invitational conference, sponsored by the Republic of China's Government Information Office, was attended by scholars, business people, and media from the Greater Los Angeles area.

Interpreting the Electoral Outcome 

Davidson College political science associate professor Shelley Rigger, who is recognized as the leading scholar of Taiwan's domestic politics in the United States, discussed how to interpret the electoral outcome and theorized about potential economic, foreign policy, and cross-straits implications. Chen faces many stumbling blocks in his efforts towards progress and change, Rigger said. The mid-term legislative elections in 2001 will be a serious test for President Chen, who will need to act immediately and aggressively to create a record of success to be re-elected

Chen may enact economic reforms that will result in continued liberalization and privatization. This would benefit foreign countries. There will likely be some redirection of resources to under-served areas of the country, especially southern Taiwan, where Chen's support base is strong.

According to Rigger, what for several decades had been viewed as "honest graft" in Taiwan's government had in recent years evolved into a pattern of heavily entrenched, systemic corruption that the Taiwanese no longer will tolerate.  Chen's most important mandate is to eradicate government corruption, but how successful he will be remains an open question.

Chen faces stumbling blocks, however. Disunity is a problem in his party.  The legislature is dominated by the opposition, and legislators could decide to be uncooperative.  Finally, if Beijing insists on unconditional surrender, there will be trouble for the entire country.

In commenting on Rigger's presentation, RAND researcher Jonathan Pollack said that Chen's first and foremost challenge is to put together a working coalition with a reasonable chance of success. Without public support and political stability, Chen's and Taiwan's vulnerabilities are intertwined.

The Future of Taiwan's Political and Economic Structure 

Thomas Gold from the University of California, Berkeley, discussed Taiwan's political and economic structure. Prior to the recent election, Taiwan's political structure had not changed in 40 years.  The KMT, the party that had ruled Taiwan during that time, has suffered significant strains and an exodus of members since the election.  Despite having a majority in the legislature, it has become the opposition party.

Chen's party, the DPP, has a great deal of experience ruling at the local level, but none at the national. DPP party members are divided about what Taiwan's stance on independence from the mainland should be. The DPP is also financially strapped.

Gold discussed the possibility that the KMT could act in a way that might cause the country's stock market to collapse.  Although it would not be in the KMT's interests to harm the economy, it could force a destabilization, then jump in to save the economy, thereby improving its image.  If KMT legislators choose not to cooperate with Chen, this could generate a sympathy vote for the new president. Gold was uncertain whether or not this would translate into more widespread support for the DPP, however.

Gold did not believe that the entry of Taiwan and China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) would help cross-straits relations, as the two countries would not be entering the WTO on an equal footing.

Rigger added to Gold's presentation by explaining how a combination of factors, including economic success and openness, the rise of the middle class, and social upheavals, led to Taiwan's democratization.

Deputy Director General of the Republic of China's Government Office Provided Keynote Speech 

Pictured: Frederic P.N. Chang, Deputy Director General of the Republic of China's Government Information Office, provides the keynote speech at the conference.

Frederic P.N. Chang of the Republic of China's Government Information Office provided the lunchtime keynote speech: "The New ROC Government - Heading Confidently into the New Century".  He portrayed the new government as possessing the confidence of the Taiwanese people and working to make the region more stable and prosperous. In this new era, he explained, Taiwan seeks to look forward to the future, not back at the past.

The election shows that Taiwan has embraced democratic rules and procedures and dismissed the notion that democracy is independence in disguise, Chang noted. Embracing democracy is not tantamount to declaring independence. The majority of Taiwanese prefer the status quo, and the government is bound by public opinion. Chang called this status quo "the foundation of stability."

Regarding historical cross-straits tensions, Chang emphasized that the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) must meet and talk to each other. "This is essential," he said. He described the Taiwan government as being open to a variety of ways to engage in dialog with the mainland. Any solution to the cross-straits issue, he stated, must have the support of the Taiwanese people.

Chang also detailed steps the government will take to pass an international bill of rights for Taiwan and to rid the country of corruption, which is President Chen's number one priority. President Chen is also trying to foster ethnic reconciliation to create, in Chang's words, "a government for all the people.

Cross Strait Relations 

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, of Francais sur la Chine Contemporaine, Hong Kong, expounded upon cross-straits relations. According to Cabestan, the leadership in the PRC has perceived Chen's election as a huge setback. Cabestan described three main groups in China that are impeding each other in the effort to solidify an official position on relations with Taiwan: "hardliners", "softliners", and "semi-hardliners". Semi-hardliners are the majority, and they have not yet built a coherent Taiwan policy. Their policy is primarily reactive. The PRC's current "wait and see" policy may continue for a while before PRC leadership can agree upon a more active position.

In Taiwan, the question is no longer between independence or unification, but between the status quo and unification.  There is a growing consensus in the ROC to not discuss unification with the PRC directly but instead improve and normalize relations with Beijing. The problem is that, given the specific conditions that the PRC government requires before it will talk to the ROC government, there appears to be little impetus for both sides to go back to the negotiating table. The situation seems deadlocked for the moment. Cabestan's conclusion is that, given the current situation, talks are possible but not highly probable.

RAND researcher Michael Swaine, the discussant on this topic, agreed with Cabestan's conclusion but cautioned that it is difficult to investigate this issue. The limited knowledge that outsiders have of the inner workings of the PRC's government and the highly dynamic situations in Taiwan and the United States, characterized by recent and upcoming elections, make conclusions at this point far from foregone.

U.S. Role in Cross Strait Relations 

The Asia-Pacific Policy Center's Douglas Paal, former Senior Director for Asian Affairs on President Reagan's National Security Council and Special Assistant to President Bush for National Security Affairs, presented the conference's last panel, which focused on U.S.-China relations.

Taiwan and the United States are both undergoing major political leadership changes, which complicates U.S. policy in this area.  Also, the United States and China see Taiwan differently. The United States views Taiwan as a democracy, and President Clinton has insinuated that Taiwan has the right of self-determination.

According to Paal, the PRC has made two mistakes: establishing the precondition of Taiwan's acknowledgment of the "One China" concept to return to talks, and threatening that indefinite delays will lead to force. Over the next four years, Paal surmised, China will debate internally about the use of force at one end, influencing Taiwanese voters on the other end, and a variety of steps in between. By February or March 2001, China will make a decision. According to Paal, the United States has an obligation to ensure that it makes the right one.

The United States needs to reiterate that it has an interest improving relations between China and Taiwan.  In recent years, the United States has kept Taiwan at a distance.  According to Paal, Washington needs to get closer to Taiwan by sending more people there and inviting more Taiwanese officials to the United States.  The United States should take the same approach with the PRC, Paal said.

The United States could also work to help strengthen the ROC and make sure that the PRC knows that the United States is aware of its military vulnerabilities.  The United States needs to be able to give the PRC pause before Beijing decides to use force.

Zalmay Khalilzad, Chair in International Security Policy at RAND, the discussant on this final panel, focused his remarks on what the United States can do to ensure that the use of force against Taiwan by the PRC remains a highly risky and hence undesirable course of action.