To the Taiwanese, the swearing-in of the 44th president of the US, Barack Obama, on Jan. 20 was a moment of profound inspiration and deep anxiety.
The inspiration comes from the US’ great leap forward in its efforts to overcome racial discrimination. The fact that three former presidents — Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — as well as Obama’s campaign opponent, Republican Senator John McCain, all attended this historical moment demonstrated the true value of American democracy. Despite their political differences, Obama bade farewell to his predecessor — George W. Bush — in a respectful manner. The transfer of power was not only peaceful but also admirable.
Although some contend that he is untested and inexperienced, Obama has, since his campaign for presidency, demonstrated intelligence and prudence in his attempts to bridge the social divide.
Emphasizing that “strength not weakness” is the US’ patchwork heritage, Obama said: “We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatred shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
If the US is a young nation as Obama said, then Taiwan is still a newborn in the democratic framework. Although Taiwan has marked several achievements on the road to democracy, including the lifting of martial law, legislative reforms, four popular presidential elections, referendums and two changes in political administration, it is still far from being a true democracy.
Political leaders, including defeated opposition candidates, boycotted the last three presidential inaugurations. Retired presidents and vice presidents continuously criticize the incumbent president, who in turn, fails to engage the opposition in constructive dialogue. Both the Democratic Progessive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had acted in the same manner — no matter who was in power.
Pledging to eradicate corruption and cronyism, the DPP ended 50 years of KMT authoritarian rule by winning the presidency in 2000, a watershed moment in the nation’s democratic development. However, it lost its grip on power last year mainly because its leading figure was involved in corruption charges.
The KMT regained central administrative power not because it had outperformed the DPP but largely because most voters wanted to see a change. Regretfully, with its absolute control of both the executive and legislative branches, the KMT leadership has failed so far to meet public expectations.
Society continues to be divided into two camps — green versus blue, “love Taiwan” or “sell it out.” A lack of domestic consensus on the country’s relations with China constitutes the greatest challenge to the new democracy.
An internally divided Taiwan may not serve as an asset to Obama’s call for “a new era of responsibility,” particularly in the international arena. Preoccupied with two wars, regional conflicts and other daunting challenges, Asian affairs are expected to be sidelined as long as a minimum stability is maintained in the early months of the new administration. This is where anxiety comes from.
The temporary detente across the Taiwan Strait no doubt meets US interests. The Obama government will encourage the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration to continue its efforts to engage Beijing. Washington is therefore expected to favor a policy of “ambiguity” rather “clarity,” or to “talk and do less” to cross-strait relations unless something worrisome comes up.
The irony is, Taiwan may show self-restraint and shoulder responsibility to support Obama’s call, but what the county has been facing, even under the KMT government, is a regime that relentlessly demands a unilateral acceptance of the “one China” principle as a precondition for negotiating with Taiwan’s future and its international presence.
Even when he formally called on both sides of Taiwan Strait to end military confrontation by signing a peace agreement in his recent six-point statement, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) framed future cross-strait negotiations under the “one China” principle.
Hu did not respond positively to Ma’s calls for a “cross-strait diplomatic truce.” Nor has he openly endorsed the KMT’s “one China, with each side having its own interpretation.”
Instead, Hu ruled out any hints of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” when it comes to Taiwan’s international status. And to downplay the DPP’s role, Beijing sought to separate the issue of “Taiwanese identity” from “independence.”
As the democratically elected national leader, Ma has what he believed a “mandate” to pursue normalization with his Chinese counterparts. It would be difficult, however, for Ma to disregard the democratic right of Taiwanese to determine their own future.
If Obama sticks to what he said, that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more,” then he should strongly endorse Taiwan’s desire to determine its own future.