Both sides are playing Taiwan’s political status for party unity
Approaching Taiwan's January 2008 parliamentary elections and the March 2008 presidential election plus the opening next week of China's 17th National Party Congress, political leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are manipulating the issue of Taiwan's future political status to promote the benefit of the Democratic Political Party in Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party in China.
Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian never promised he would end his presidency quietly. A master at brinksmanship, it would be completely out of character for him not to continue promoting Taiwan independence in his unrelenting quest for international recognition of Taiwan's political sovereignty.
Despite more popular concern for economic growth than for Taiwan independence, spotty diplomatic support from the mere 24 nations that do maintain relations with Taiwan, being rejected for admission to the World Health Organization 10 times and just having suffered its 15th rejection for admission to the United Nations, Chen still persists in his crusade for international respect and to end what he calls "Taiwan's humiliation" orchestrated by China.
In the wake of such setbacks, Chen is promoting a referendum on Taiwan's admission to the United Nations as "Taiwan" rather than the "Republic of China" to be voted on at the same time as the presidential election. Such a stratagem has unsurprisingly brought protest and military threats from China. Moreover, it has contributed to a deteriorating relationship between Taiwan and its principal benefactor, the United States.
The primary U.S. goal in East Asia is to preserve political stability. The United States does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but it is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, which gives the United States the option of coming to Taiwan's defense in the event of a Chinese military attack. However, Chen risks the stability of East Asia and abuses U.S. relations by continuing to push the sovereignty issue and provoking China, assuming that any Chinese military response would automatically be met by a U.S. military response.
Politically, the U.S. position is that the future of Taiwan must be worked out between Taiwan and mainland China, thus pre-empting a unilateral action on behalf of either party.
The parliamentary and presidential elections represent both challenge and opportunity for Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. During his two terms, Chen's and the DPP's success have been hampered by Nationalist Party control of the legislature. The parliamentary election will be the first time representatives are selected from single-member districts, rather than multiple-member districts. The number of representatives will be cut from 225 to 113. Many feel the party that scores the first victory in the reformed system will gain long-term electoral benefit.
The March 2008 presidential election likely will be very close. The Nationalist Party will not be divided as it was when James Soong bolted the party in 2000 to create his People First Party and opened the path to Chen's first term. In 2004, Chen won by less that a percentage point only after a suspicious assassination attempt on him and Vice President Lu Hsiulien.
Chen supported former Premier Su Tsengchang as his heir apparent. However, Su lost to Frank Hsieh in the intra-party primary. By all accounts, Hsieh, also a former premier and former mayor of Kaohsiung, is more pragmatic about Taiwan independence than Chen. He also realizes that taking an extreme position on Taiwan independence would cost him support with more moderate voters.
Nevertheless, Chen has promised to be very active in the presidential campaign, and through his machinations, Su is on the DPP ballot as vice president. Hsieh would have preferred Yeh Chulan, former Minister of Transportation and Communications. "I also think there is growing concern that Chen is trying to box in his successor, to force the next president to continue his policies," said a leading Taiwan specialist, Shelley Rigger of Davidson College in North Carolina.
Rigger is right. On Oct. 3, the DPP Central Standing Committee selected Chen as its new chairman. He will have great influence over both the legislative and presidential elections and whether the DPP's tenure and his policies will continue. Hsieh will need Chen's help and will have to accommodate him more than he otherwise might wish.
Fully appreciating how close the elections likely will be, Chen's posturing on the U.N. referendum is more geared to rallying the DPP's base to ensure victory in both parliamentary and presidential elections, rather than actually winning international recognition for Taiwan. Playing such a role also can help to secure his place in Taiwan history and to defend against corruption charges facing him, his wife and family members and certain staff members.
Across the Taiwan Strait in China, the run-up to the 17th National Party Congress (see "Look East," Sept. 9) has been especially contentious. As China continues to economically develop, different schools of political thought evolve within the CCP, creating greater factionalism. Thus, deciding how many seats on the Politburo Standing Committee and full Politburo to allocate to which faction and in what person has been difficult. This is all the more sensitive when considering the role of Shanghai Clique members whose careers were promoted by the still-powerful former CCP General Secretary, Jiang Zemin, a political opponent of the current General Secretary Hu Jintao.
All of this comes on top of the March National People's Congress, which was preceded by fiery public outcry about passage of the Private Property Protection Law (Wuquanfa). The law was introduced in 2002 but wasn't passed until this year due to a lack of popular support and consensus among representatives. Despite ultimate passage of the law, the session was not without dissent. Statements by Premier Wen Jiabao emphasizing Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and the threat of military force to pre-empt any attempt to sever Taiwan from the mainland brought instant unity and howling support from all representatives.
Statements made in recent weeks and on China's National Day, Oct. 1, by key members of China's national leadership indicate that Taiwan will be a key agenda item that will receive much attention at the party congress. Given the emotive and unifying impact of the mention of Taiwan in mainland China, discussion about Taiwan will be geared to promoting party unity.
Taiwan's political future remains unclear. Nevertheless, rhetoric about Taiwan's sovereignty is a proven way to elicit political support in both Taipei and Beijing.
teaches classes about the politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. firstname.lastname@example.org