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Asia Report N°53
6 June 2003
In the last decade, Taiwan has moved slowly but surely away from its commitment to the idea of ‘one China’, the proposition, long agreed on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, that Taiwan and the mainland are parts of one country. This has led to steadily mounting tension between Taiwan and China, for both of whom the issue goes to the heart of their sense of identity. While the prospect of an outbreak of war across the Strait remains distant, action is needed by all relevant parties to contain and reverse the situation.
This report is a background study, describing how the ‘one China’ formula has eroded and why this matters: it makes no specific recommendations about the way ahead. But two companion reports released simultaneously with it address in detail the risk of military confrontation and how this might be contained, and the political and economic strategies by which a peaceful relationship might best be maintained in the short to medium term. What an ultimate, next generation, political settlement might look like if peace can be sustained will be the subject of a later ICG report.
The changes that have occurred since the early 1990s had their primary roots in Taiwan domestic politics.With democratisation came the emergence of a ‘new Taiwanese’ identity – no longer mainlander but not original Taiwanese either. Taiwan’s impressive economic performance and integration with the international trading system became a special source of pride to its people and began to have an impact on attitudes about its place in the world. The sense was that these achievements had come in spite of the constraints imposed by China and the international community in respect to the ‘one China’ principle. As a result, many Taiwanese resented China for imposing this international straitjacket. China’s military threats, resuming in 1995, also strengthened the new Taiwan identity and weakened support for the ‘one China’ idea.
Now, in 2003, the position that Taiwan is already an independent sovereign country is not one of a radical political fringe, but a mainstream view. It was first clearly asserted under a Kuomintang (KMT) President, Lee Teng-hui, in 1994, following hints of a change of direction as early as 1991. The other main political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose leader, Chen Shui-bian, was elected President in 2000, is even more vigorous in its advocacy of Taiwan’s status as an independent sovereign state. The only mainstream debate now in Taiwan is about how to deal with the evident contradiction between the old idea of ‘one China’, still formally supported by the KMT, with the idea of Taiwan as an independent sovereign state, now in fact supported by both the KMT and the DPP.
As a result of this domestic evolution in Taiwan, the old ‘one China’ principle, though still the reference point for international thinking about the China-Taiwan relationship, is no longer by itself an adequate device for containing the emerging new tensions in cross-Strait relations. The Administration of President Chen Shui-bian and his DPP are committed to the view that China needs to acknowledge Taiwan’s status as an independent sovereign country. But because Chen and his ministers, like most voters in Taiwan, also know that they are walking a tightrope. he has committed his government to the need to prevent a final show-down with China by avoiding highly provocative political acts such as conducting an independence-related referendum or changing the Constitution to create a ‘Republic of Taiwan’.
China has been very concerned about Taiwan’s gradual move away from support for ‘one China’. In 1995 and 1996 Beijing used highly visible military exercises to put pressure on Taiwan to return unambiguously to its observance. Though there seemed to be some relaxation of tension after that, the problem never went away and in fact became worse. When in 1999, Taiwan’s President Lee called the cross-Strait relationship a ‘special state to state relationship’, China’s leaders felt that the country may have come closer to war over Taiwan than at any time for decades, and they let this be known. Recognising the gravity of the situation, they also adopted a more creative mix of policies than was in evidence in 1995 and 1996. This mix, including more extensive contact with political parties in Taiwan and economic pressure on Taiwan businesses in China that support the DPP, is having good results as far as China is concerned.
China was particularly pleased with the announcement by Taiwan in May 2002 of plans to resume comprehensive direct air and shipping links, a move long advocated by Beijing as a first step on the path to reunification. There has been a solid improvement in U.S.-China relations as well, with some positive spin-offs for China’s concerns about Taiwan. And there has been no weakening in the formal position of the majority of states on recognition of China and ‘no Taiwan independence’. The U.S. under President Bush has repeated its stand to this effect. The bottom line for China is preventing Taiwan getting de jure recognition, especially from the major powers, for its claim to be an independent sovereign state: it is able to point to all of these positive developments as evidence that its position may be holding and that, therefore, there is no need to resort to military action. China’s leaders feel that the heat has subsided for the moment, and they now see the Taiwan issue as a second order priority in terms of day to day pre-occupations.
But for all this, China’s leaders remain deeply concerned about the underlying trends in Taiwan domestic politics and, more recently, in U.S.-Taiwan military relations. Neither of these hold out much promise for China. It had only been prepared to live with the situation of Taiwan’s de facto independence on the basis that the de jure situation – international recognition that Taiwan cannot be independent – did not come under serious threat. After a decade of gradual change, the longstanding position that both sides supported ‘one China’ but had differing interpretations of what it meant is now on the point of final fragmentation. Domestic political imperatives suggest Taiwan’s challenge will continue.
China has made plain that this course could still lead to war but is hoping that its strategy of carrots and sticks, supported by occasional demonstrations of its military power, can convince Taiwan to sign up once again to a non-confrontational, mutually acceptable formula for defining the relationship. But Taiwan’s challenge is drawing new momentum both from China’s threats and from the resulting rejuvenation of the U.S.-Taiwan military relationship.
In this environment, it is highly unlikely that any of the three key actors will, or can, abandon their current positions. An early resumption of the high-level informal talks between China and Taiwan is unlikely. All parties must, therefore, continue to find creative ways of going forward with each other under a framework of otherwise irreconcilable positions on the big matters of principle. They need to operate much more visibly and vigorously in the positive domains of cross-Strait relations (trade, investment, direct links, exchanges, joint oil exploration and fisheries ventures in the Taiwan Strait), and they must continue to subdue any tendency to provoke. The period leading up to Taiwan’s next presidential election, now announced for 20 March 2004, will be an important test of whether its pro-independence leaders will be willing to act this way.
Beijing/Taipei/Washington/Brussels, 6 June 2003