Reports on Taiwan’s election are taking a lot of space in the Japanese media these days. Pre-election atmospherics seem to be heating up. Last month I visited Taiwan, where I had taught at Tamkang University in 2006, and I was struck by the pre-election situation.
Was it the pre-election hysteria, or was it the tense animosity that divides Taiwan? For sure, the heated rivalry between the KMT, the party of Chiang Kai Shek, and the DPP, the party of President Chen Shui Bian, is apparent, but what really struck me was the extremely pragmatic way the Taiwanese people are dealing with this election. While some Taiwanese clearly are concerned with the economy, others are wondering how Taiwan should best deal with challenges looming just over the horizon with China. These seemed to be the two questions most Taiwanese have on their minds.
Voters take into account factors they consider most important. In 2005 Japanese voters overwhelmingly supported Koizumi on postal reform, and he won almost exclusively on that single issue. In July 2007, voters turned their attention to the mishandling of pension programs by the government, which led to the catastrophic defeat of Prime Minister Abe. In both cases, foreign policy issues were outside the scope of Japanese voters’ concerns. Taiwan, like the United States, is concerned with its economic and domestic issues, but its foreign policy and security interests are also major factors.
Just as the Taiwanese are concerned with their regional security posture, Washington and Tokyo should also be concerned with what happens in Taipei this election.
The democratization process started under Chiang Ching-Kuo led to the election of President Lee Deng-hui in 1996, and culminated with the election of Chen Shui-bian from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000. As a result of this process, there emerged a powerful group of people who assert that they want to create a separate and independent entity from the PRC, not as Chinese, but as Taiwanese. This situation is fundamentally different from the “one China” political identity that the Republic of China on Taiwan had when it was formed in 1949, and which was “acknowledged” by the U.S. and “respected” by Japan in 1972.
The rise of “Taiwanization” has created an unacceptable situation for China. With its growing economic, political and military power, unification with Taiwan has become the capstone objective to overcome all that China had lost from the middle of 19th century to imperialist encroachment. The Beijing Olympics may be a coming out party for modern China, but the crowning accomplishment it has in its sights is the reunification of Taiwan.
While the U.S. and Japan are maintaining their adherence to the international structure composed in 1972, both countries, being strong democracies, insist that any changes can only be made through peaceful negotiations. Hence their support for the “status quo.”
The Taiwanese people know that political stability or the “status quo” benefits them, but they also know that China’s military build-up threatens them. So Taiwan is increasingly being compelled to express the obvious: that it is unacceptable for China to threaten the use of force against Taiwan.
This leads one to wonder which definition of “status quo” China has in mind. There is no status that does not change. Beneath the generally agreed upon principle of maintaining the “status quo,” the real world is changing. Taiwan’s formal status has not changed in 35 years, but its actual international status has steadily been transformed. More democracy has led to a more Taiwanese identity at home. Meanwhile, China has emerged as a powerful global player. Under the commonly shared policy of “status quo,” China, with its growing power, has quietly but constantly influenced what has been taking place in the international arena.
For more than a decade now, China has tried to treat Taiwan as if it were a caged bird, trying to monopolize the small window through which the bird gets water and nourishment, while pressuring to curtail other ties the bird might have to the outside world. Taiwan has resisted isolation successfully through vigorous trade and democratic expansion. More than fifteen years ago, Taiwan successfully became a member of the WTO and won the right to participate in APEC. But now, Beijing is absolutely determined not to allow Taiwan to participate in any of the East Asian cooperative frameworks in any form, such as the ASEAN Plus Three or the East Asian Summit.
In the long run, the DPP is seeking independence and the KMT is generally seeking unification with the mainland. Choosing the KMT this election may be interpreted by the outside world as a sign that the Taiwanese have chosen rapprochement with China, whereas if a DPP candidate is chosen, that the Taiwanese want to end their drift toward China and create conditions that may better reflect the reality of the region.
Unlike voters in almost any other country, except the United States, the Taiwanese are being called on not only to evaluate their own economic interests, but also to make judgments about their international security situation. Some have quipped that “everyone should have the right to vote in the U.S. elections, because what they decide impacts the entire world.” I believe that something similar could be said of Taiwan at this time in history.