Beijing and Washington Must Work Together for Long-Term Peace in the Taiwan Strait

Jing Huang
Jing Huang Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center

March 9, 2006

In a move that once again threatens the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the Asian region, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian announced on February 27 that the National Unification Council (NUC) will henceforth “cease to function” and the National Unification Guidelines (NUG) will “cease to apply.” This was a direct contradiction to what Chen said in his inaugural speech on May 20, 2000, where he pledged not to seek independence, stating “the abolition of the National Unification Council or the National Unification Guidelines will not be an issue.” Chen’s pledge, which he reaffirmed on May 20, 2004 when he was inaugurated for his second term, had been an essential part of the long-standing if brittle agreement between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington that maintenance of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is in the fundamental interests of all parties concerned for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, ever since Chen, then Chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), came to power in March 2000, various maneuvers and counter-maneuvers have more than once stoked tensions between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Nevertheless, thanks to this agreement, such tensions have been consistently kept at a tolerable, or at least manageable, level. Yet, this fundamental agreement seems to be on the brink of collapse because of Chen’s reckless move despite strong objections from both Beijing and Washington.

On the surface in making this bold political gamble, it appears Chen has reaped considerable benefits in at least four crucial aspects. He has successfully rallied the pro-independence forces in support of his leadership role, a role he expects to continue after he steps down from the presidency in May 2008. He has also re-unified the DPP, which had been in disarray since its stunning defeat in Taiwan’s local elections in early December 2005, with his own vision of Taiwan’s future. Moreover, he has successfully retaken center stage in Taiwan’s political life. Most important for Chen is that he seems to be reestablishing his momentum in shaping cross-strait relations, as well as in Taiwan’s domestic politics.

However, the costs for Chen’s Pyrrhic victory are enormous. First, in breaking his own pledge made to the United States, China, and his own people, he has damaged his credibility thoroughly and irrevocably. Second, he has to a large degree damaged the political destiny of his own party. After its defeat in Taiwan’s local elections late last year, there had been a lively debate within the DPP on the party’s overall political strategy for the sake of a better future. Now, forced to rally under Chen’s banner, the DPP has lost a golden opportunity to introduce greater flexibility and rationality into its policy agenda and thereby remain a more formidable player in Taiwan politics over the long run.

Most importantly, Chen Shui-bian has undermined the integrity of Taiwan’s democracy. Taiwan’s elevation to the status of the first full-blown Chinese democracy has indeed been Taiwan’s most valuable asset over the past two decades. Now, serious questions inevitably arise. How could a healthy and prosperous democracy be manipulated by a political leader who has worked so consistently merely for his own gains at the expense of fundamental interests of the people in Taiwan? Moreover, how could a peace-loving democratic society tolerate such reckless gambles that could upset the applecart of peace, stability, and prosperity in not only the Taiwan Strait but the entire Asia-Pacific region? Predictably, if Chen is allowed to further hijack, with impunity, the interests of Taiwan for his own ends, the long-term damage to Taiwan’s democracy and interests of the people in Taiwan will be all but catastrophic.

Under the circumstances, policymakers in both Beijing and Washington are now debating how to respond to Chen Shui-bian’s latest maneuver. Essentially, they are facing two options. The instinctive reaction may be to respond to Chen by forcing him to stop pushing the envelope, or, in case of his noncompliance, making his remaining term of office intolerable. This approach, however, is unwise for two reasons. First, it still fails to address the underlying question of how to best ensure long-term peace, stability, and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait. Second, it will play right into Chen’s hands, enabling him to stir up popular resentments at home against “outside bullies” and continue to occupy center stage in Taiwan’s political life.

The second option is more challenging, yet in the long term will prove much more beneficial and rewarding. Beijing and Washington have to first find a way to work together to prevent the current tensions from escalating into a full-scale crisis, a situation in which all parties would have much to lose. They then need to establish a long-term policy and compliance measures to prevent such a crisis from occurring again. To achieve these goals, both Beijing and Washington need to further their own consultation and communication with individuals as well as various political parties in Taiwan. They need to approach this task with the conviction that the people in Taiwan, who have created impressive miracles of economic prosperity and democratization, are capable of bringing their democratic development to a maturity which populist demagogues cannot manipulate for their own interests. Also, as a responsible “stakeholder” in the existing international system, China needs to work closely with the United States not just to cool the present tension but to develop a viable framework for long-term peace in the Taiwan Strait, where both countries have enormous stakes. Finally, Beijing and Taipei will need to undertake a joint effort to establish institutionalized channels of communication and dialogue, with the goal of decreasing mutual distrust despite radical words or deeds of individual politicians in Taiwan.

On February 26, one day prior to Chen Shui-bian’s announcement, the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued a statement warning Chen not to take any provocative action that would undermine the status quo and disrupt peace in the Taiwan Strait. In that statement, Beijing was not only able to shrewdly distinguish Chen from the DPP, but also articulated that after years of cross strait exchanges, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have already formed a “Community of Common Destiny” (Mingyun Gongtongti), sharing more fundamental interests than irreconcilable differences.

Beijing’s delicate statements, along with its restrained reaction to Chen’s provocative deeds seem to be a testimony to Beijing’s emerging pragmatic and positive approach, an approach that would undoubtedly be more helpful and constructive for a final peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue that is acceptable to the peoples on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.