Uncertain Era for Taiwan

Taiwan opened a new chapter in its political history Saturday by electing an opposition candidate as president and ending the political domination of the island by the National Party, or KMT. The KMT was led for many years by the late Chiang Kai-shek after his retreat to the island, which followed his army’s defeat by Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces on the Chinese mainland in 1949.

By electing Chen Shui-bian, 49, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party and a longtime advocate of Taiwan’s independence from China, the island’s 30 million people enter a period of uncertainty. Chen moderated his views on independence in the run-up to the election, and that’s a sensible position. President Clinton should now remind Chen that the United States will not support--and we believe it must oppose--any overt moves toward Taiwanese independence. The United States has long supported a “one-China” policy, favoring neither side in the Chinese struggle and insisting on peaceful resolution of the differences. That policy is sound and has helped ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

Peaceful resolution of this generations-long conflict depends on the careful preservation of the ambiguous U.S. one-China policy, which recognizes the legitimacy of the government in Beijing but urges it to talk with its historic rival, the KMT. The new government in Taiwan, as well as that in Beijing, should understand the American point of view: The question of unification must be settled by negotiation without use or threat of force. Anything else would threaten peace throughout Northeast Asia and upset political, economic and social links throughout the area. This is a problem for Chinese on both sides on the Taiwan Strait to resolve as an international as well as a national priority, and that should be pondered hard by the Chinese leaders in Beijing and by Taiwanese politicians as well. Chen won 39% of the vote, edging out former KMT official James Soong, who came in second with 37%, and the Nationalist candidate, Lien Chan, who won 23%. Put another way: Fully 60% of Taiwan’s voters cast ballots for candidates opposed to Taiwanese independence. Clearly, these results do not give Chen a mandate for radical changes and in no way offers a mandate for a unilateral declaration of independence.

Nevertheless, Taiwan’s new president has compiled an impressive record since the early 1980s as a courageous opposition leader, but he has little governing experience aside from serving one term as a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, mayor of Taipei. He alienated many allies, made some enemies and failed to win mayoral reelection. As president, he will face the still firmly entrenched power of the Nationalists, who, despite losing the presidency, still control the legislature and wield considerable economic influence.

Chen made the right initial moves in relations with the mainland in offering to travel to Beijing for what he called “reconciliation” talks before he takes office May 20 and in inviting Chinese leaders to Taiwan. Certainly, the two sides have much to discuss and settle before embarking on larger negotiations, should the firm prospect of reunification arrive. Despite more than a decade of talks, Beijing and Taipei have made virtually no progress on improving basic political relations; what progress there has been has come in areas of clear mutual interest such as trade, transportation, investment and telecommunications. Trade is particularly important to both sides, in view of the extensive Taiwanese investment on the mainland and the use of low-cost mainland labor for Taiwan-sold products. As for people-to-people exchanges, there has been substantial progress in the last 15 years following decades of no contact, but both sides could do more, and should do more, for their people.


China’s leaders reacted tersely to Chen’s election, but with a welcome moderation. “We are listening to the words and watching the actions of Taiwan’s new leader and waiting expectantly to see in which direction he will take cross-strait relations,” the Chinese government said in an official statement. That is a vast improvement on the threats of military attack that Beijing had aimed at Taiwan prior to the presidential balloting, though those threats from the mainland may have helped push defiant Taiwanese to back Chen. Certainly his victory gives the torch of leadership to a new generation of the inhabitants of Taiwan. The island government’s maturing democracy accentuates the gap with the Communist Party rule, and in important ways it nurtures the prospect of glimmers of democracy on the mainland.

For Washington, the prudent approach to these developments is to uphold the one-China policy and encourage both sides to approach each other through trade, culture and other avenues that bring them closer together and that promote reconciliation. Chen Shui-bian should make his election as president an important step in this process.