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Dec 29, 2009

Two for the show...

I bought yesterday's World Journal, an American Chinese-language newspaper published by the United Daily News Group, the pro-blue Taiwan media group.

The newspaper included a monthly insert this particular Sunday, and you can see the titles of all the articles here. I took objection to Chen Shiyao's article titled "What will the two sides of the [Taiwan] Strait do for the next several decades?"

Chen's argument can be summarized, I think fairly, as below: Ma Ying-jeou has continually ricochet between endorsing ultimate unification with the "mainland" in a distant future and promises to maintain Taiwan's de facto independence. Ma is walking this tight rope because he desires to keep Beijing in a favor-giving mood, even as the Taiwanese voting public has no interest in unification. In other words, Ma is trying to please all, and trying to garner the votes of both the light-greens and KMT loyalists, as Lee Teng-hui managed to do before.

This "greening" of the KMT's position already threatens to shatter the silent agreement between Beijing and the KMT that unification is the eventual goal of negotiations. And at any time, Beijing could reverse its position on a number of policies that are net-favorable to Taiwan, and oculd seriously threaten Taiwan's relationship with its remaining allies and hurt Taiwan's economy through a retraction of the current set of carrots. Both Ma's reelection and Taiwan's livelihoods would then be under threat.

To maintain good relations between Taiwan and the "mainland" over the next several decades, the KMT must avoid the siren call of de facto independence and give time for the political atmosphere in Taiwan to accommodate the pro-gradual unification crowd's voice; they can then establish a political foothold. At the same time, the mainland must give Taiwan more carrots and hide the sticks behind their backs a little better, or they will lose the chance to win the hearts of the Taiwanese.

Chen makes special note that a recent Global Views Monthly poll shows that while only 57% of Taiwanese insist that negotiations with the "mainland" be conducted on a fully equal footing, a stronger 64% believe that important cross-strait agreements should go through a referendum for public approval. Chen labels the referendum a Pandora's box that must not be opened, as it may trigger an attack from China, and so the KMT must remain resolute on not allowing the referendum process to infringe on cross-strait affairs.


I don't believe Chen is very right about Ma's pro-de facto independence credentials. Here's the WSJ quote from Ma's interview that Chen opens with to make his case:

"Whether there will be reunification as expected by the mainland side depends very much on what is going to unfold in the next decades. This is a question no one can answer at this stage. But as the president of this country, I believe that the 23 million people of Taiwan want to secure one or two generations of peace and prosperity so that people on either side of the Taiwan Strait can have sufficient time and freedom to understand, to appreciate, and to decide what to do."
Several days later, Chen notes,

In a private meeting with professor Winston L. Y. Yang from Seton Hall University of the United States, Ma also clearly said that "there is little support in Taiwan for unification with China." ([UDN,] Dec. 16, 2009)

The KMT reports on that meeting in more depth:
Yang said that, during their conversation, he had asked President Ma whether “the maintenance of the status quo meant to maintain Taiwan’s status quo of de facto independence,” and the President had not denied it. Furthermore, President stated that the majority of the people on Taiwan expressed support for the maintenance of status quo in various public polls and surveys when given the choice of unification, independence, or the status quo.

Yang went on to ask President Ma if Mainland China became more democratic, would conditions of unification improve for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. To that the President replied, “It will depend on the mainstream opinion among the people of Taiwan.”
So you see, Ma didn't actually say that he considers the status quo to be de facto independence; in fact, Ma himself and the KMT leadership has repeatedly stated that the status quo is a Republic of China, one which by constitution and legal right claims the territory of all of China. And nothing they say implies the contrary.

I believe Ma's silence is motivated by the fact that younger, lighter blue voters (that I have met) have always implicitly believed Ma maintains a pro-de facto independence position. Ma needs this sort of "rumor" to be floating around to maintain their support. But he will never endorse a truly pro-de facto independence position, and what he actually believes in will probably never be clear.

Chen identifies the major problem with the current path of negotiations with Beijing -- namely, that Beijing expects compliance from Taiwan on political as well as economic matters, and that Beijing has increasingly large leverage to hurt Taiwan with little effort if it feels Taiwan drifting from the Chinese political line. Yet his proposed solution to the problem is for Taiwan to let Beijing make her even more vulnerable to Chinese sabotage, in hopes that a non-existent "pro-gradual unification" voter block will emerge and take things happily in that direction.

Chen fails to see that in reality, Beijing has no intention of giving out carrots forever with no return in sight. They are demanding minimal compliance now (that the KMT endorse the one China principle in some form) but will demand more soon -- not after several decades of agreements favorable to only Taiwan. At the same time, the Taiwanese voting public has no intention of allowing gradual unification to happen; neither do they want politicians to take the choice out of their referendum ballot-holding hands. Chen's proposed solution of eternal Chinese favors in return for only minimal Taiwanese political compliance is not going to fly in either Beijing or Taipei.

Chen's most realpolitik position is on the subject of the referendum, which is indeed both anathema to Beijing and a core demand of an increasing percentage of Taiwanese voters. Hence the true bottleneck in future cross-strait development will indeed be at the point China's demand for a political resolution meets Taiwan's demand for a refrendum. The KMT hopes to postpone that point forever, but Beijing has no intention of doing so.


Beijing knows no referendum could pass in the next several decades which would be favorable to its political objectives -- de facto independence as the status quo is indeed the common political language of young greens and young blues alike. The DPP knows this too, which is why they count the referendum as their sacred right and best defense. The KMT knows this too, which is why they avoid the issue entirely, neither ruling out a political referendum on this subject but neither daring to imply that a referendum could or should be held ("The ECFA is an economic, not political, agreement, and so a referendum is not required...").

So we are faced with a future where Taiwan will have little leverage, China will make increasingly painful demands for political concessions from Taiwan, and the Taiwanese public will be demanding their right to self-determination. China's military will respond belligerently; the USA is unlikely to maintain much interest in the Taiwan Strait at that point. Japan will probably fall back. And we will be at a point where China has to decide if invasion is really worth the potential gain, and Taiwanese will have to decide if their liberties are worth defending. And it's very hard to tell what may happen at that time.

I don't see the basic causes of tension going anywhere any time soon, unless the KMT manages a quick sell out. I increasingly think they won't be able to get away with one. So don't expect tensions to really relax across the Taiwan Strait any time soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some food for thought:

1) As for what Ma truly believes in, I'd put my money on the reformist ideas of the old "革新保台" faction of KMT, which was favored by C.K. Chiang in his last years. More specifically, when it comes to Taiwan's legal status, I'd put him in the camp of H.K. Yang (楊西崑, see Ambassador McConaughy's telegram to the State Dept. on 11/30/1970). In short, I firmly believe that while Ma yearns for Taiwan to attain the full de jure status of a sovereign state, he'd do his best to keep it a de facto one. In this context, the "happy ending" of a so-called reunification, provided that it's achievable way way way down the road, could only be a confederation of two willing partners.

2) Based on the above assessment, he would indeed have to walk the tight rope as long as he remains in power. He would need to buy time for a gradual easing of tension and animosity across the strait, while remaining vigilant. He would also need help to strengthen the position of the "doves" on the other side for, as things stand now, any CCP leader who appears to be too dovish would lose his grip of the politburo instantly.

3) Ma represents probably the best chance in the foreseeable future for us to curry not just favors from the CCP leaders, but more importantly favorable views toward Taiwan as an independent state among the mainland populace.

4) With continued distrust coming from the Green, and increasingly grumpy and vociferous dissent coming from the Blue's "unification" old guards, the vested interests of the Taiwanese business community on the mainland and the entrenched local factions of the KMT, Ma's teetering on the tight rope is indeed becoming more and more perilous.