After an extremely narrow reelection victory, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian has revealed his true colors, indicating he will continue to advance the cause of Taiwan's independence. The United States needs to change its approach toward Taiwan to keep Chen's agenda in check and avoid a cross-Strait military conflict.
During the period immediately before the March 20 election, debates raged over whether Chen was stoking Taiwanese nationalism solely to help his electoral chances or out of genuine conviction to lead Taiwan toward independence. After his election victory by less than 30,000 votes, and now that he is free of any future electoral constraints, Chen's intentions are clear. He told the Washington Post in Taipei on Monday, "The fundamental reason I won this presidential election . . . is because there is a rising Taiwan identity and it has been solidified. I think the Beijing authorities should take heed of this fact and accept the reality." Chen added, "I think we have reached an internal consensus that insists upon Taiwan being an independent, sovereign country."
Chen's statements reveal that he has misread his electoral mandate, misread the meaning of sovereignty, and misread attitudes in Beijing and Washington. The United States has a strongly compelling interest in changing its approach toward Taiwan to keep Chen from entangling the United States in a military conflict with China. Because the United States has become less ambiguous in its commitment to Taiwan's defense, any use of Chinese military force will probably provoke an American naval response. Because China will undoubtedly be the first mover in this action-reaction cycle, the United States will not be able to decide upon the timing of the conflict. At stake are thousands of American lives, the economic prosperity of perhaps the entire Asia-Pacific region, the enormous volume of American trade with China and investment in China, and U.S. strategic cooperation with China on North Korea, terrorism, and nonproliferation. These stakes are momentous, but without influence over both Taiwan and China the United States will have little control over events.
The "one China" policy, which acknowledges that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait believe there is "one China, and that Taiwan is a part of China," has remained the foundation of U.S.-China relations since it was negotiated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1972. After normalization of relations with China in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to reaffirm Washington's commitment to Taiwanese security. Since 1979, Taiwan has become a fully democratic polity, and has witnessed a historic handover of power to Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. Despite tensions, the "one China" formula has produced a relatively stable cross-Strait environment over the past thirty years.
China's resolve to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, through military force if necessary, should not be understated. The concept of the indivisibility of the Chinese nation has deep historical roots and contemporary political implications. Chinese leaders not only fear the domino effect that the loss of Taiwan could create in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong, but also the loss of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Few observers of China believe the CCP could survive an independent Taiwan. For the Chinese leadership, compared to the possibility of losing power, military action to prevent the loss of Taiwan is not only possible but probable. Conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan is not inevitable. Perceptions of stability are critical to maintain stability. Beijing is not aiming to reclaim Taiwan immediately, but to maintain reunification as a political option. If Beijing perceives that Taiwan's leadership will never permit reunification, the Chinese leadership could conclude that military force is the only acceptable option.
For this reason, what Chen Shui-bian says and does, and the perceptions he creates in Taiwan and on the mainland, could entangle the United States in a military conflict. While politicians will always claim a mandate from even the narrowest victories, Chen's claim to a mandate to pursue Taiwanese independence is questionable. Chen won reelection over the Kuomintang's Lien Chan, who promised a more stable, less confrontational approach to Beijing, by less than 30,000 votes out of more than 13 million votes cast. Moreover, a referendum closely associated with Chen, which called for more defense spending to counter China's missile threat and a resumption of dialogue with China on a "peace and stability" framework, failed to garner the 50 percent of voter participation necessary to validate it under Taiwan's Referendum Law. The referendum, which some suspected Chen of promoting for political purposes, drew a stern rebuke from President Bush in December 2003. "The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose," Bush warned. The wording of the referendum was later revised to ensure that it did not "change the status quo," but Chen's insistence on maintaining the referendum reveals the extent to which it was closely tied with his political fortunes. Beijing also opposed the referendum, fearing it would set a precedent for future referenda on Taiwan's sovereignty and independence from China, and the Kuomintang urged their supporters to boycott the referendum. Because the referendum's participation only reached 45 percent, some of Chen's supporters must have withheld support for the referendum, most likely to avoid confrontation with China. The failure of the referendum indicates Taiwan has a moderate center, including some Chen supporters, favoring stability and continuity in cross-Strait relations. This moderate center casts doubt on Chen's mandate to pursue activities leading Taiwan toward status as an "independent, sovereign country."
Despite the referendum's failure, Chen has insisted that he will continue to push for additional referenda, including a controversial proposal to alter Taiwan's constitution in 2006. Taiwan's constitution was drafted in 1947 under the control of Chiang Kai-shek as the constitution of the Republic of China, with reclaiming the mainland as a founding principle. Chen Shui-bian's desire to update Taiwan's outdated constitution appears reasonable to many outside observers, but it alarms both Beijing and Washington precisely because it undercuts the basis for the "one China" compromise reached in 1972. If the new constitution is ratified under the name of the "Republic of Taiwan," Beijing will likely view this action as a violation of the one-China principle, which would almost certainly generate a military response.
In the past, Beijing has held Taiwanese acceptance of "one China" as a precondition for resuming dialogue between Beijing and Taipei. Taiwanese leaders refused, arguing that while they did not seek independence, they could not surrender sovereignty before dialogue began. Chen warned Beijing against doing this again on Monday, indicating that Taiwan will respond with a new demand that China recognize Taiwan as a separate country. "Then, I believe the two sides will be forever deadlocked, major differences cannot be solved and it will be impossible for both sides to sit down and talk. We understand this in our hearts. So don't raise the 'One China' principle. The so-called 'one China' does not exist now. Perhaps it will in the future. We should all be able to sit together and deal with the future one China issue together." Inserting a demand for China to recognize Taiwan as a separate country is not a step toward dialogue with Beijing; it is only a step toward confrontation.
To prevent entanglement in military conflict, the United States should actively attempt to minimize Chen Shui-bian's impact on cross-Strait relations. This new approach should broadly consist of "dual deterrence," in which the United States warns Taiwan of the consequences of moves toward independence, at the same time as continuing warnings deterring China from employing military force. If Chen refuses to moderate his rhetoric and shelve his referenda, the United States should make gradual, measured reductions in the degree of U.S.-Taiwan military-to-military cooperation, while clearly telling the Taiwanese leadership privately of the reasons for the downgrade. The United States should make clear to Chen that any of his more controversial proposals touching upon sovereignty will require U.S. advice and consent. For example, scenarios exist in which constitutional reform could proceed, but with certain sections of the constitution relating to sovereignty walled off from change, through the influence of U.S. policymakers. If Chen refuses to respond to these private entreaties, public statements condemning his moves should follow, preferably in advance of the policy initiatives, which should limit the measures‚ political support inside Taiwan. Critics may assert that this strategy circumscribes the authority of Taiwan's democratic process, but safeguarding Taiwan‚s democratic development, as well as protecting all other U.S. interests in Asia, requires avoiding conflict with China.
While this approach fits within the contours of the "one China" policy, it would reflect an additional U.S. focus on limiting the pro-independence statements and actions of Taiwanese politicians. This would have two salutary effects upon cross-Strait stability. First, it would convince Chen that the United States is not unconditionally committed to Taiwan's defense, even though the U.S. stance is less ambiguous than in the past. Secondly, it would reassure China that the United States is actively and publicly opposing Taiwan's independence, which should forestall immediate Chinese military action. The United States should try to convince China that any military action to intimidate Taiwan would likely be counterproductive and would stimulate additional pro-independence sentiment, as it did before the 1996 and 2000 Taiwanese elections.