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Taiwan: seeking a meaningful dialogue

  • Date:2004-10-17

By Jaushieh Joseph Wu

The Taiwan Strait has often come in the international media's spotlight, as many people throughout the world fear that tensions between Taiwan and China might intensify to an unmanageable degree. As one of the countries at the center of this gathering storm, it is in Taiwan's own interests, as well as those of other parties, to present some of the facts pertinent to this matter and to make its policies clear to the international community.

The situation across the Taiwan Strait is more complicated than usually presented by the media, and it is necessary to take into consideration the numerous interrelated dimensions if a clear picture is to be seen. These include the military and diplomatic confrontations, parallel historical developments, and economic interdependence of the two sides. At the center of this complex intersection of conflicting elements, Taiwan would also like the international community to understand that the pursuit of peace is its paramount objective.

First dimension: Military buildup and diplomatic confrontation
It is known from a number of widely available sources that China's military budget began to expand rapidly in 1994, and has had double-digit growth in almost every year since. This is far in excess of China's economic growth rate and, by comparison, Taiwan's military budget has stagnated. Taking 2003 as an example, according to the Beijing authorities' own published figures, China's military budget topped US$23 billion, which is almost three times the figure spent on defense by Taiwan. This fact alone provides a number of reasons for concern.

Much of China's growing military budget has been spent on foreign procurement, including Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets, sovrenmenny-class destroyers, kilo-class submarines, and other advanced weapon systems. China's deployment of missiles is also a cause for worry, with around 550 short- to mid-range ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan from the southeastern coastal region. Some in Washington DC have been moved to describe China's missile deployment as the most destabilizing factor in the region. In addition to these increasingly accurate, traditional ballistic missiles, China has also been developing, and possibly deploying, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and cruise missiles, thus further destabilizing the situation.

Immediate need
In such circumstances, Taiwan's most immediate need is to prevent this military imbalance from tilting so far that China thinks it can use force against its tiny neighbor without the fear of an effective defense force. In order to prevent the cross-strait military situation from deteriorating further, Taiwan's government is moving to strengthen its defense, which explains its attempts to pass a special budget for necessary air, submarine, and missile defense capabilities.

Of similar seriousness to this military buildup and, perhaps, even more destabilizing due to the strong emotions involved, is the confrontation in the diplomatic arena. Taiwan's existence, under the formal national title of the Republic of China (ROC), is denied by the People's Republic of China (PRC), which claims sovereignty over Taiwan. It has proclaimed that there is only one China, that the PRC represents China, and that Taiwan is but a province of the PRC. It uses this “one China principle” to exclude Taiwan from international affairs, causing much antagonism among the people of Taiwan, and resulting in feelings of hostility towards China, as is repeatedly shown in public opinion surveys.

One example that illustrates this point occurred on July 23, 2002. On the eve of ROC President Chen Shui-bian's swearing in as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the PRC announced that Nauru, one of Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the South Pacific, was switching diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. It later emerged that China had “bought” this allegiance with US$137 million in economic aid, for a country of only 10,700 citizens. This move and the timing of its announcement were unambiguously intended to humiliate Taiwan and its democratically elected president. Although the international community paid little attention, the government and people of Taiwan were deeply affected.

No sign
As of summer 2004, Taiwan has not detected any sign or trend suggesting that China has reversed, or even slowed, its strategy of diplomatically isolating Taiwan. Indeed, in the first half of 2004, the Beijing authorities seem to have been working hard to woo Taiwan's diplomatic allies in Latin America. The PRC has even threatened to cut the UN's aid to those countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan. If China starts to tighten its grip on these nations, it will initiate a new round of crisis across the Taiwan Strait.

Second dimension: Interdependence in non-political areas
In contrast to this military buildup and diplomatic confrontation, economic integration and cultural exchange across the Taiwan Strait present a dramatically different picture. For humanitarian reasons, in 1987 the Taiwan government started to allow its citizens the right, albeit limited, to visit relatives in China. In the 17 years since this first opening up, travel between the two sides has mushroomed. There have been a total of 31 million visits by Taiwan’s people to China, averaging around 3 million visits annually in recent years. In the same period, PRC citizens have made more than 1 million visits to Taiwan. This is just one small but significant example of the reality that lies behind what is widely perceived as the Taiwan-China tension.

Cross-strait trade has also expanded year-on-year, reaching US$46.3 billion in 2003. China accounts for around one quarter of Taiwan's export market and about 17 percent of Taiwan's total international trade. Some people have even suggested that these high levels of trade with the PRC make Taiwan too dependent on China.

Tremendous increase
Moreover, Taiwanese investment in China has increased tremendously, amounting accumulatively to at least US$70 billion. This represents around half of all Taiwan’s direct overseas investment and, in recent years, has risen to more than 60 percent of total outbound investment.

Many have speculated that this acceleration of capital flow to China over recent years has been driven by Taiwan's higher labor costs. While previously this may have been the case, analysis of the latest Taiwanese investments in China show that there has been a shift from labor-intensive manufacturing to more capital- and technology-intensive production. Furthermore, careful examination of recent large investment projects shows a clear and successful division of labor with Taiwanese working on innovation and design while Chinese concentrate on manufacturing and exporting.

After taking up the reins of government in May 2000, DPP leaders adopted a series of liberalization policies aimed at improving cross-strait exchanges. These included setting up direct transportation links between China's southeast coast and the ROC offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu, liberalizing the “go slow, be patient” policy, preparing for future direct shipping and air transportation links, permitting Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan, and allowing charter flights to China.

The government also allowed specialists in a variety of fields to visit Taiwan, universities to use textbooks written in China's simplified characters, and China's media to station journalists in Taiwan. These measures were all aimed at increasing mutual understanding and bringing reason to the previously confrontational atmosphere of cross-strait relations. Nevertheless, many international observers, hearing the Beijing authorities’ harsh language and seeing their threats and preparations for war, still conclude that the Taiwan Strait is potentially one of the most explosive flashpoints in the world.

Domestic politics
Despite China's rapid social and economic changes, there has not yet been an equivalent political transformation towards a more responsive system. Moreover, because of the lack of democratic rules regarding any change in leadership, there are increasing indications that serious competition is fermenting between rival political factions. As usual, competition for power within the PRC expresses itself in the form of policy debate. In 2004, this debate seems to be focused on the issue of Taiwan, as well as the related question of how to deal with the United States in the face of improving Taiwan-US ties. As this debate progresses, Taiwan's leadership is being used as a scapegoat and its policies are twisted to fit the theory that Taiwan is ill intentioned and, therefore, that Beijing must adopt a hostile posture when dealing with Taiwan. This explains one of the main causes for current tensions in the Taiwan Strait, that they are driven by the PRC's domestic political agenda.

Internal political differences in China tend to become exaggerated and ignite domestic feuds since the PRC's decision-making process is not transparent, and its leadership selection and recruitment processes are still closed to institutional oversight, media scrutiny, or popular participation. There are still no signs as to how soon people in China might be able to choose their own leaders, or even when the political system might be more responsive to public opinion. It can be expected, therefore, that Taiwan will continue to be used as a scapegoat for some time to come.

Unlike China, Taiwan embarked on the process of democratization in the late 1980s. This culminated in the first direct presidential election in 1996, and first peaceful transfer of power between political parties in 2000. The peaceful nature of these transformations has been recognized internationally as a tremendous political achievement.

Major trend
Moreover, since Taiwan is a democracy, major policies must meet the approval of a majority of the people through legislative oversight and periodic elections. The public also reacts to cross-strait developments and international situations. China's diplomatic oppression of Taiwan, for example, has had a counterproductive effect that China did not foresee, with more than 50 percent of Taiwan's people now identifying themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. This trend has been interpreted as evidence of Taiwan's desire for independence, however, and China does not seem to realize that the main force behind it has been the PRC's own hostile posture toward Taiwan. Meanwhile, it continues to formulate policies that will merely encourage this trend and force Taiwan's people to conclude that China is afraid of Taiwan's democracy and its people's right to express their views.

Taiwan's democratization has many facets, and China would do well to pay closer attention to the results of public opinion surveys in Taiwan. Regarding future relations with China, for example, surveys asking whether people support independence, the status quo, or unification with China have consistently shown that between 70 and 80 percent of Taiwan's people opt for a broadly defined status quo. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that Taiwan's public opinion on cross-strait issues is one of the most important foundations of cross-strait stability.

People in Taiwan are beginning to wonder if it might be Taiwan's democracy that China objects to, rather than Taiwan independence per se. For China to better understand how Taiwan's people view the future of cross-strait relations, it should realize that most people—70 percent in a July 2004 poll—are sensitive to China's hostility toward Taiwan government. This merely illustrates how China's Taiwan policies can be counterproductive to its stated policy goal of bringing Taiwan closer. If China does indeed want Taiwan's public to view it more favorably, it should act in a less threatening manner.

Constitutional revision
Another misinterpretation by China concerns Taiwan's plans for constitutional revision, which is due to start early next year. The PRC has been announcing to the world that, if Taiwan goes ahead with constitutional revision, this could lead to war. The truth is, however, that Taiwan has a genuine need to revise its Constitution. The current Constitution was written in 1947 in China, and was designed for use in China. It has provisions for seven major branches of government, which are supposed to act as checks and balances of each another. This system is merely hypothetical and cannot function, as it differs completely from the realities of the existing political system. For example, due to the nature of Taiwan's electoral system, the public sees the legislative branch—Legislative Yuan—as a key source of the nation's political problems. Taiwan has also been deliberating over whether elimination of provincial and village level governments would improve administrative efficiency. Other issues, such as voting age, military recruitment, economic regulation, indigenous peoples' rights, etc., all require constitutional revision if they are to be addressed properly.

Procedures for constitutional revision will follow those prescribed by the current Constitution. A Constitution Bill must firstly be adopted by a three-quarter majority of the Legislative Yuan. A National Assembly would then be elected according to proportional representation, and it too would need to approve the Legislative Yuan's bill by a three-quarter majority. As promised by President Chen in his inauguration speech, issues relating to national sovereignty, such as the national title and national flag, will not be dealt with by the ruling party. The high thresholds required for this procedure should ensure that any radical proposals will be vetoed.

China continues to threaten Taiwan over its intention to revise the Constitution as if the people of Taiwan do not have the right to an improved political system. This threat raises concern in the international community over whether constitutional revision by Taiwan constitutes a “unilateral change of the status quo.” Actually, one could say that the better Taiwan’s democracy functions, the more Chinese people—whether in Hong Kong, China, or wherever—can emulate it. Taiwan's democracy is, therefore, the best hope for all Chinese people the world over.

Four stages
Since Taiwan is already a democracy and its people are willing to seek reconciliation with China, Taiwan's government would like to deescalate regional tensions and bring the two sides of the Taiwan Strait together to create a cooperative mode by the following four stages.

In the first stage, already underway, Taiwan is pursuing a conciliatory and open policy toward China, even if this requires unilateral gestures of goodwill. Taiwan's government has reviewed its cultural and economic exchange policies, and would like to expand the scope of these cross-strait interactions.

In the second stage, Taiwan will pursue dialogue and negotiation with China on substantive issues, such as currency exchange, investment protection, avoidance of double taxation, legal arbitration, IPR protection, tourism, repatriation of illegal immigrants, joint efforts to combat cross-strait crime, and direct transportation links. Through negotiation of these substantive issues, Taiwan and China may slowly build confidence and gain each other's trust. When agreements on these issues are reached, the two sides will enter a new era of cooperation. At that stage the environment should be such that dialogue on more thorny political issues can begin.

Interim framework
In the third stage, Taiwan will seek to establish an interim framework for peace and stability to govern the activities between the two sides before a final settlement can be found. The pursuit and maintenance of peace should be the paramount guideline within this framework so as to ensure that neither side resorts to extreme means to change the status quo. The two sides should pursue political negotiations according proper mechanisms, establishing appropriate political relations, carrying out military confidence building measures that will prevent any accidental incidents from erupting into major conflicts.

In the fourth and final stage, the two sides will work out their political differences for a final settlement. Whatever form this takes, Taiwan should be able to maintain its self-rule without jeopardizing its democratic system. Taiwan should also be guaranteed the right to be a member of the international community and to participate in international bodies, such as the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. Taiwan does not exclude any form of political relationship with China, so long as Taiwan's democracy is recognized and the people agree to it.

Even before China has agreed to engage in the dialogue proposed in the second stage, Taiwan has already made unilateral efforts to hold out olive branches to China. For example, it has already allowed more journalists to be stationed in Taiwan, will soon allow Chinese actors to participate in Taiwan filmmaking, and is evaluating other policy measures that will improve cultural and economic exchanges. Recently, Taiwan has strongly urged China to resume its dialogue with Taiwan since this will help achieve China's stated aim of bringing Taiwan closer rather than pushing it further away.

The Taiwan Strait has been described by many as one of the most volatile areas in the world. Any military conflict will certainly bring devastating results to the region and, therefore, is not in anyone’s interest. Since commencement of the Taiwan government's new term on May 20th, 2004, it has spoken with prudence and acted with goodwill in trying to reconcile the differences with China. These efforts have been appreciated by the international community, and it is time that more followed the lead of those major nations which have urged the PRC to look more carefully at Taiwan's policies, actions, and intentions, and to resume dialogue with Taiwan. The international community should also remind China that peace and development should be the most important objectives in cross-strait relations, especially in light of the “peaceful rise” China has proclaimed as its national endeavor. As always, it takes two to make peace, and China should make a public proclamation that it will pursue peace in resolving its differences with Taiwan. Peace should color the language used by all parties concerned.

China is a great nation with a long and proud history; its civilization has been glorious, not through conquering others but by accommodating them. China will continue to be a great power not by intimidating Taiwan but by accommodating and living peacefully with Taiwan. The reward for China to reach peace with Taiwan outweighs those of conflict or stalemate. China has wasted the four years of President Chen's first term by not responding to Taiwan’s repeated calls for meaningful dialogue. A widening of the distance between the two sides has certainly not benefited China’s interest. Those in the international community who are concerned with cross-strait relations should remind China's leaders of this simple but important fact.

(This article originally appeared in the New Zealand International Review, September 1, 2004.)
Jaushieh Joseph Wu
Chairman, Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan