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The Washington Quarterly 23.2 (2000) 135-151

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Taiwan, Voting for Trouble?

Willem van Kemenade

Tough Choices in Taiwan

The long-hoped-for seismic political change in China, that should have softened Taiwan's opposition to dealmaking with the mainland, has failed to materialize. Beijing remains adamant that Taiwan must be reunified under a "one country, two systems" formula, preferably by peaceful means (even the peaceful means are coercive: pressure, diplomatic isolation, and so forth) and if necessary by coercion or military means. Meanwhile, as Taiwan's second democratic presidential election approaches, mainland and island China are keeping a wary eye on each other. The very divergent political systems on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are groping for ways to influence each other, but the goals on each side are so dissimilar that the outcome of the election remains highly unpredictable.

Nevertheless, it appears that Beijing is now pursuing its aims with greater sophistication than in 1996, when it staged missile tests and large-scale military maneuvers in the waters around Taiwan to intimidate the electorate. Despite some threats and leaks about military maneuvers, nothing similar to 1996 has happened during this electoral cycle. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Chinese military still favors a hardline approach towards Taiwan and considers war inevitable in the mid to long term. For the time being, the civilian leadership has the final say. President Jiang Zemin's flexible rhetoric seeks to entice the United States in further weakening Taiwan, while offering new inducements to the Taiwan business community. Local governments in the coastal provinces across the Taiwan Strait and the local and Taiwanese business sectors stand to lose most if war would break out and are therefore lobbying against the hardline gaining control. [End Page 135]

In Taiwan, the dynamics of multiparty democracy have fractured the political spectrum. There is a much broader range of views now on how to define Taiwan's future status; how to respond to China's escalating campaign of pressure, military threats, and diplomatic isolation; and how much to bank on intervention by the United States if the People's Republic of China (PRC) decides to use force against the island. The incumbent President Lee Teng-hui and two of the three major presidential candidates, Vice President Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), show by their words and actions varying degrees of willingness to risk military confrontation in the hope that this confrontation will be brief and limited and that the United States would bail Taiwan out. The other major candidate, independent James Soong, and two minor ones, Lee Ao of the New Party and Hsu Hsin-liang, a defector from the DPP, are prepared to seek accommodation with China so as to avoid military conflict and rebuild constructive relations between both sides.

The 'Two States' Controversy and the Issue of Sovereignty

Despite U.S. and Taiwanese military intelligence reports in February 1999 about a new missile buildup on the southeastern China coast facing Taiwan, cross-strait relations experienced a fragile recovery during the first half of 1999. Both sides were gearing up for a historic visit to Taiwan in the fall by China's senior quasi-official envoy Wang Daohan, Jiang's personal confidant and chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (an official nongovernmental organization that in the absence of intergovernmental relations with Taipei negotiates with Taiwan's equivalent, the Strait Exchange Foundation).

Then, Lee suddenly upped the ante. With his surprise announcement on July 9, 1999, Lee asserted that cross-strait relations should be redefined as "special state-to-state relations" rather than relations between a central government in Beijing and a local government in Taipei. Lee's move outraged Beijing and strengthened the hands of the hardliners, culminating in a new round of military threats and rumors of preparations for war.

For several weeks, tension was so high that a repeat of the sabre rattling of 1996 seemed imminent. U.S. critics of the Clinton administration's ineffectual China policy interpreted Lee's "two states...


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