What Beijing Must Do

In a fast-moving and sometimes secretive and unpredictable policy evolution, the US has sought to slow the pace of events in Taiwan that it fears are preparing the way for the island’s independence, which would raise tensions in the region and could lead to war.

Washington despatched an envoy to Taipei with a personal warning for president Chen Shui-bian, calling bluntly for Taiwan to avoid provoking Beijing, and also did not refute Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s assertion, during his visit to the United States, of official American “opposition” to independence for Taiwan. In doing so, President George W. Bush indicated clearly that he does not approve of Mr. Chen’s actions as he manoeuvres for votes ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election in March. Some observers have called this a historic diplomatic loss for Taiwan.

Mr. Bush’s warnings may temporarily relieve tensions, but any benefit to the cross-strait situation will be short lived. In both rhetoric and substance, the general direction of politics in Taiwan regarding the mainland, which continues to be the defining issue, is towards localisation—to which Beijing is rigidly opposed. Pressures will continue to increase, and the problem will begin to be resolved only when the Chinese government alters its preconditions for negotiations with Taiwan.

The trend is most apparent when observing the Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP), which make up the unificationist “pan-blue” camp, which is competing with Mr. Chen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for the presidency. The pan-blue camp, and Beijing, have long opposed a new constitution, referendums and statements or symbols affirming a distinct Taiwanese national identity fearing they will provide a framework for independence.

However, a law codifying democratic procedures for constitutional revision and public referendums on a number of important topics was passed in November and has just been signed into law. Its passage came after a stunning about-face by the KMT and PFP, which form a majority in the legislature. The pan-blue parties have also agreed to slash by half the number of legislature seats, giving in to a long-held DPP demand.

In addition, the manager of the pan-blue camp’s presidential campaign, Legislative Yuan president Wang Jin-pyng, recently stated that his party would not rule out future independence. KMT and PFP candidates routinely trumpet their Taiwanese credentials, and one member of the KMT’s Central Committee has even called for his party to change its official name from Chinese Nationalist Party to Taiwan Nationalist Party. Such a suggestion, even if it is pure campaign rhetoric, was unimaginable just a year ago.

It is these steps that have created an increased level of frustration in Beijing over its inability to control the situation, and which prompted Mr. Bush’s statements.

The pan-blue camp’s attempts to increase voter support closely follow the long-standing ideology and policies of the pro-independence “pan-green” forces of the DPP and seek to sidestep dangerous accusations from Mr. Chen and his supporters that the pan-blues are “selling out Taiwan” to the mainland by not insisting on independence.

It is clear that the majority of Taiwanese do not favour the most generous vision of unification currently on offer: special administrative region status under “one country, two systems”, similar to Hong Kong and Macau. In the current atmosphere, the only other choices apparent to most Taiwanese voters and politicians are a move towards formal independence—whether or not this is the actual objective—or the option preferred by most, maintenance of the status quo.

The development of Taiwan’s democracy and the urgency of campaign politics are moving the island rapidly towards the second option, and diminishing prospects for the third. With the DPP and its allies moving the political centre of gravity, and with no new constructions or incentives for dialogue or unification coming from Beijing, the KMT and PFP are left with nowhere to go but towards localisation, which appears to equal independence, especially from the Chinese government’s perspective.

If it wishes to counter this trend, Beijing needs to provide a new vision for Taiwan’s voters. Threats will not influence the electorate in its favour, as they did not in Taiwan’s elections in 1996 and 2000. The relative calm that the new leaders in Beijing have affected will, likewise, encourage all parties to move further from the mainland. Statements from Washington will have a limited effect, as indicated by Taiwan’s reaction to Mr. Bush’s statements. Unfortunately, Beijing fears that appearing to make unilateral concessions would only give credibility to the “splittist forces”, which would be a moral and philosophical defeat and could translate into greater support for Mr. Chen at the ballot box.

Rather, an announced willingness to negotiate on general mid-term issues such as the concept—but not necessarily the definition—of a future relationship would have a much more profound effect. Then, it would no longer be a simple case of Taiwan either being “sold out” to an inflexible mainland or “walking its own road”. A new discussion would begin among Taiwanese politicians and voters on how best to deal with Beijing, not on how best to take unilateral, potentially destabilising, steps away from the mainland.

Beijing would have to make some painful concessions, such as abandoning its insistence on Taipei’s acceptance of the “one China principle” as a precondition for negotiations, and taking the risk that recognition of the DPP would help Mr. Chen in March.

The mainland could change the discourse in Taiwan and in the three-way relations with the US, and would create a more effective role for itself in the cross-strait debate. President Hu Jintao and Mr. Wen should expend some of their increasing political capital and take these steps to avoid a permanent and destabilising change in the cross-strait status quo.