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Taiwan Elections Vindicate the Status Quo

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • April 26, 2008

    The KMT’s victory in the March 2008 presidential elections can be essentially attributed to the promises it made to improve economic ties with Mainland China and assure good governance. Ironically, these were partly the same promises that had brought the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) to power in the historic 2000 presidential election. There was no element of surprise to the election results in which Ma Ying-Jeou defeated his DPP counterpart Frank Hsieh. The KMT’s victory does not mean that Taiwan will begin supporting unification with the Mainland. Rather, it signifies the likelihood of the continuation of the status quo in Cross-Strait relations.

    Over the years, both KMT and the DPP have deviated from their principled positions on the unification-independence debate. While the KMT has gradually moved towards greater identification with Taiwan, the DPP has gradually shed its staunch position on independence. In fact, they have both moved towards the centre, meaning they neither support independence nor unification.

    In 1991, the KMT strictly adhered to the “Guidelines for National Unification,” which advocated the unification of Taiwan with the Mainland and underlined that “both the Mainland and Taiwan are parts of Chinese territory.” In other words, the KMT upheld the ‘one China’ principle. This position changed with the ‘1992 Consensus’, which while upholding the ‘one China’ principle reserved the right of each side to interpret the meaning of ‘one China.’ This marked the beginning of the KMT’s dilution of its original stand and adoption of the status quo position. The 1994 White Paper on Cross Strait relations issued by the KMT government also emphasised the status quo, by stating that China and Taiwan “should exist as two legal entities in the international era.” In 1999, President Lee Teng-hui went even further when he declared that China and Taiwan share “special state-to-state” relationships. But this extreme position was toned down the very next year after the party suffered electoral defeat at the hands of the DPP. KMT leader Lien Chan moved away from Lee Teng-hui’s radical position and consented to follow the 1991 Guidelines for National Unification as well as the ‘1992 Consensus’. At the same time, he added a qualifier to the unification principle, by retaining the ‘Taiwan first’ concept, which implied that the people of Taiwan will decide the status of the island.

    The DPP’s initial position, laid down at the party convention in 1999, was that “Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country. Any change in the independent status quo must be decided by all the residents of Taiwan by means of plebiscite.” But in 2000 when the DPP first came to power, Chen Shui-bian, its first President in his inauguration speech, proposed ‘5 NOs’: no declaration of independence, no change in national title, no two-state theory into Constitution, no referendum, and no abolition of the national unification guidelines. These indicated a clear toning down of the independence stand and the adoption of a status quo position. While in 2002, Chen Shui-bian reverted to his independence stand and described Cross Strait relations as “One Country on each side,” which meant “equal sovereignty” of China and Taiwan, by 2004 he once again adopted a status quo position as indicated in his second Inaugural speech, which outlined two opposing propositions. While reiterating the ‘5 NOs’, it also urged a revision of the Constitution so that it could accord with the “contemporary needs of Taiwan.” In 2005, this status quo position was reiterated in the Chen-Soong Ten-Point Joint Statement. Reflecting a conciliatory position again, the 10 Points included an acceptance of the definition of the country’s status in the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, a reiteration of ‘5 NOs’ and a requirement of the consensus of the 23 million people of Taiwan in any change to the status quo of the Island.

    In sum, an analysis of the rival party positions suggests three things. First, while the KMT has represented a gradual nativisation, the DPP has also toned down its aggressive pro-independence stand. Second, the two parties’ correlation with the Islander/Mainlander distinction has blurred. And third, the current position indicates that both the DPP and the KMT have come to adopt a status quo position.

    In fact, the 1992 Consensus, which Ma Ying-Jeou has adopted as part of his policy towards the Mainland, clearly hints at the status quo position. In short, the Consensus means “one China, different interpretations” and Ma Ying-Jeou has adhered to it saying that it “is just to manage it (the cross-strait relations) so that it wouldn’t erupt into a major crisis.” In his interview to the Times, Ma Ying-Jeou, stating his position on ‘one China’ clearly said, “We don’t have to recognise each other; all we have to do is not challenge and not deny the existence of the other side.” Essentially, by reiterating the 1992 Consensus, Ma Ying-Jeou closed the discussion on the sovereignty issue and shelved the independence-reunification debate to the backburner. Instead, he has put economics at the forefront with the aim of mending economic ties with the Mainland and assuring economic benefits and social stability to the Taiwanese people. In his interview to the Times, Ma Ying-Jeou said that he owed his victory to “the people of Taiwan” who “want a vibrant economy, a clean government, a society with equitable distribution of wealth and a peaceful Taiwan Strait.” Thus, in the KMT’s view, an ending of the current state of hostility between Taiwan and the Mainland does not mean the automatic adoption of a pro-unification stand. Instead, it is aimed at simply facilitating peaceful Cross-Strait relations, which would usher in greater economic growth and prosperity in Taiwan. In other words, the KMT’s position has reduced the divisive politics in Taiwanese society to the extent that it does not hurt the Island’s economy but without in any way resolving the issue of identity politics.

    Nonetheless, identity politics, which has divided the Island’s polity into pro-unification (KMT) and pro-independence (DPP) parties, holds strong sway. This was in fact reflected in the economic policies advocated by the two parties. The DPP, in particular, has been reinforcing the localisation movement and resisting closer economic ties with China. This has hurt the business interests of Taiwanese people, and many businessmen faced the threat of eventually being forced to wrap up their investments in the Mainland if they did not cease to support the DPP’s cause. Here it is worth nothing a news report which stated that Taiwanese companies have invested more than US $100 billion in the Mainland. In contrast, the KMT’s election manifesto called for a robust opening up of Taiwan’s economy to China or in Ma Ying-Jeou’s words “maximize the opportunity and minimize the threat.” The KMT’s economic policy, thus, found strong resonance in the Taiwanese business community.

    Public opinion in Taiwan also does not show any support for unification with the Mainland. At the same, there is also no clear verdict for independence, as indicated by the referendum results. This is primarily due to the military threat posed by China, with about 1,400 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan. The two referendums held in tandem with the presidential election, however, failed to pass, as voter turnout did not reach the required threshold of 50 per cent of eligible voters. Nevertheless, they indicate wide support for maintaining the status quo. It has been reported that more than 10 million people voted in support of the island joining the United Nations either in the name of Taiwan or of ROC. Overall, the electoral verdict is in favour of maintaining the political status quo while at the same time increasing economic linkages with the Mainland.

    It is being widely regarded that the KMT’s present policy of ‘economy first’ would pave the way for peaceful Cross-Strait relations. However, any such definitive conclusion about the future of Cross-Strait relations cannot be boldly advanced without taking into account the manner in which China attempts to resolve the issues of nationalism and competing identities. Indeed, recent developments in Tibet and the Chinese response point to the difficulties in this regard. It is therefore premature to conclude that the KMT’s victory would ensure peaceful Cross-Strait relations.