Hidden in Plain View: A China Strategy for Taipei

Masahiro Matsumura
Masahiro Matsumura Professor of International Politics on the Faculty of Law and Political Science, St. Andrew’s University in Osaka

April 23, 2007

Part I

With his announcement of the “four wants”—”independence, a new constitution, name rectification and further development”—President Chen Shui-bian foreshadowed some of the rhetoric that will lead to tensions among China, Taiwan and the United States for the next year, which includes legislative and presidential elections in Taiwan, and the 17th National Party Congress in China. The stakes are high, and the rhetoric and responses from various players are likely to be intense.

Taiwan’s under-dog mentality has been reinforced by China’s continuing rise. From Taipei, the People’s Republic of China appears increasingly formidable as it sustains high economic growth rates. Taiwan’s economy is rapidly becoming integrated with the mainland’s because Taiwan cannot control its own companies’ investment there. Meanwhile, China continues to channel massive resources into an arms buildup—it announced a 17.8 percent increase in military spending the day before President Chen’s “four wants” speech and global diplomacy designed to isolate the island.

To cope with this pressure, Taiwan should continue to build a mature democracy that serves as an example for other countries and China itself, and stress the legal orthodoxy of the Republic of China (the official name of the island’s government). The independence strategy currently pursued by President Chen is counterproductive and does not play to Taiwan’s strengths or the global system.

The ROC on Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant democracy. From 1949 to 1987, and the then-ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) maintained martial law and an authoritarian regime over the island, occasionally exercising merciless oppression. In overcoming authoritarian government and developing a dynamic democracy, the people of Taiwan have made an admirable achievement to Chinese political culture, which in mainland China remains heavily freighted with the legacy of the oppressive Sino-centric order.

Although its domestic politics are currently turbulent, Taipei is undertaking necessary institution-building and creating a mature democracy. When the system is consolidated, Taiwan will exert a demonstration effect on the other greater ethnic-Chinese political communities, pressing them over time to emulate the model of Taiwan’s democratic regime. This power of example will never fail to affect democratically-minded forces inside and outside the CCP. It will shake the very foundations of the CCP regime, Beijing’s domination over the “self-governing” Hong Kong people, and even the authoritarian regime in Singapore.

Taipei possesses another, less appreciated advantage over Beijing, which its legal orthodoxy (fatong), as found in the Constitution of the Republic of China. This is the second instrument that the ROC can use to wield its power of example. In this way, Taipei may pose a serious potential challenge to the multi-ethnic empire under Beijing’s dictatorship.

At the constitutional level, from 1949 to 1991 both the ROC and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claimed to be the sole legitimate government of the Chinese state.

In 1991, the Taipei government altered its position but maintained the fundamentals of its legal orthodoxy. It accepted that the Beijing authorities were a legal government (rather than a bandit regime) but reaffirmed vigorously the idea that the ROC was a sovereign state. The ROC recognized that its jurisdiction (effective control) is limited to the island of Taiwan and some minor islands, but its claimed that its sovereignty still covers all the territories that the ROC inherited from the Qing dynasty, including current PRC territory as well as Outer Mongolia and disputed border areas with neighboring countries. Finally, during the 1990s Taipei took the position that China was a divided country awaiting unification. The constitutional implication was a commitment to the principle of one China and opposition to either two Chinas or Taiwan’s independence from China.

Part II

The situation became more complicated in 2000, when the Democratic Progressive Party came to power in Taipei. The PRC has mobilized the power and influence at its disposal to depress the current Taiwan government’s aspirations for international space and independence, and as a result Taiwanese domestic politics have become even more severely polarized, with the issues of independence and unification forming the dividing line, a line President Chen recognized in his March 5 speech. Even if Taiwanese people and politicians can come to agreement internally, because of its grave material power disparity with Beijing, Taipei will never be able to march straightforwardly into independence.

Instead, Taiwan has to develop a strategy for applying its strength to Beijing’s Achilles heel. And the best way is to reinforce the legal orthodoxy. Taipei has to take a series of unilateral legal and administrative measures to eliminate embarrassing vestiges of the former definition of the ROC’s territorial definition. It should amend its laws to abandon territorial claims to Outer Mongolia and various border areas. In particular, Beijing already has formal diplomatic relations with Ulan Bator, and the Mongolian state is a member of the United Nations. More importantly, the ROC and Mongolia opened trade representative offices in each other’s capital in 2002. By endorsing the fait accompli, Taipei shall give up the defunct fiction that Mongolia is part of China and in effect acknowledge Ulan Bator’s de jure independence.

To enhance the power of example vis-a-vis Beijing, the ROC government should renew the mission of its Tibetan and Mongolian Affairs Commission under the Executive Yuan, which the ruling DPP administration has turned into an insignificant organ.

The Commission, as well as other relevant administrative organs, could be very effective by publishing white papers on the human rights conditions of ethnic minorities on the Mainland. Under the ROC constitution, the government located in Taipei is authorized to make official assessments of human-rights conditions in China without committing any intervention in the PRC’s internal affairs. Beijing is infamous for grave human rights abuses in non-Han ethnic minority areas and for a consistent disregard of the right of self-determination.

Though it feels threatened politically and militarily, Taipei should appreciate and utilize the demonstration effect of its democracy and the value of its legal orthodoxy.

Ultimately, the Taiwan issue has to be settled jointly by the people and governments of Taiwan and the mainland, in a “peaceful” manner that is comparable to the ongoing integration process of the European Union. With its communist ideology defunct, however, Beijing at present utilizes the unification issue to fuel nationalist sentiment and a sense of unity in order to secure regime legitimacy. When these conditions for a peaceful change across the Taiwan Strait are met, outsiders should not interfere. Until then, Taipei has to learn how to effectively balance out Beijing’s pressures.

This op-ed originally appeared as two seperate parts published on April 23.