Some background on the recent Taiwan-China confrontation

Saul Thomas stthomas at
Mon May 1 10:41:07 MDT 2000

World Socialist Web Site

Confrontation brewing between Beijing and Taiwan's president-elect

By James Conachy 27 April 2000

Even before the installation of newly elected Taiwanese president Chen
Shui-bian next month, tensions between Taiwan and China are set to sharpen.
Having opposed Chen's election, the Chinese bureaucracy has insisted that
the new administration recognise Beijing's “One China” policy, which
regards Taiwan as part of China. Chen, who is from the Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP), has repeatedly said he is prepared to discuss
reunification but will not accept the “One China” policy as a precondition
for negotiations.

In an interview with Newsweek, published on April 17, Chen said: “If ‘One
China' is defined as Taiwan being a province or local government of the
Peoples Republic, this is not acceptable to the vast majority of people in
Taiwan. How can they [China] expect me, as president of this country, to
accept Taiwan's demotion to a province? If the mainland insists that
acceptance of ‘One China' is a precondition, it will be hard to resume
dialogue. We prefer to see ‘One China' as an issue that can be discussed.”

Chen's statement followed bitter attacks by the Chinese government and
press on his vice president-elect, Annette Lu. On April 4, in an interview
with Hong Kong television, she described relations between China and Taiwan
as being like those of “distant relatives” and “neighbours”. Lu is a
veteran politician and well acquainted with the coded language of
cross-strait diplomacy. Her choice of words was a direct repudiation of
Beijing's frequent invocation, as part of its sovereignty claim on the
island, that mainland and Taiwanese Chinese are the same “family”.

The Chinese government Taiwan Affairs Office declared that Lu was an
“extremist and a typical Taiwan independence element,” who had “challenged
the One China policy,” “provoked animosity” and “become the scum of the
Chinese nation”. An editorial by the official Xinhua news agency on April
11 declared her a “traitor” and stated: “Lu's lunatic remarks give off a
dangerous signal when the development of cross-strait relations is at a
crossroads”. A barrage of such language against Lu, accompanied by demands
that Taiwan accept the “One China” policy, has filled the mainland press
over the last three weeks.

The main aim of the anti-Lu invective appears to be to pressure Chen. But
on April 20, Chen again rejected China's insistence that Taiwan is a
province of China, indicating only that “there was plenty of room for
discussions” on a confederation system or a loose association with no
mainland sovereignty over the island. Lu stated on the same day that “we
cannot say we are Chinese, if the 'One China' refers to the Peoples Republic”.

Chen's DPP was initially formed in illegality in 1986 on the platform of
declaring the island an independent state. At that time, the Kuomintang
(KMT) dictatorship, that had ruled the island since 1949 as the Republic of
China (ROC), regarded itself as the legitimate government of the whole of
China, with Taiwan as just one province. Over recent years though, the DPP
has distanced itself from a declaration of independence and drawn closer to
the stance of retiring KMT president Lee Teng-hui.

In the course of his 12-year presidency, during which a transition was made
from military rule to a parliamentary system, Lee repudiated the Republic
of China's post-1949 claims on the mainland and agitated for international
recognition alongside the People's Republic.

Last July, in his most explicit declaration of Taiwanese sovereignty, Lee
described cross-strait relations as “state-to-state” or between countries.
This provoked a breakdown in talks with China and intensified military
activity in the Taiwan Strait. Lee's willingness to push the issue to the
point of war caused a split within the Kuomintang, with longtime KMT
politician James Soong running as an independent for president. But the DPP
enthusiastically supported Lee's position.

In the lead-up to this year's presidential election and since his victory
on March 18, Chen has repeatedly pledged not to implement the DPP's
independence platform unless China attacks Taiwan. He has projected a
moderate image and stated his willingness to enter into negotiations with
China, including on reunification. However his official statements are
little more than semantics. His standpoint is that constitutional reforms
during the 1990s, establishing that the ROC government can only be elected
from Taiwan, have made a declaration of independence unnecessary. Like Lee,
Chen uses the ROC and Taiwan as interchangeable terms.

After meeting with Lee soon after the election, Chen sealed a de facto
coalition with what remains of the Kuomintang by appointing the serving KMT
Defence Minister, Tang Fei, as his Premier and head of cabinet. Tang is a
former airforce commander and life-time KMT member. Chen's open embrace of
the KMT, which the DPP had opposed since its formation, and which was
responsible for the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of many DPP members,
has led to recriminations in the DPP's ranks.

The main opposition to the DPP administration is what was the anti-Lee
faction in the KMT led by Soong. After winning 36 percent of the vote in
the presidential election, compared to Chen's 39 percent, Soong and his
supporters have formed the Peoples First Party. Only a small number of KMT
legislators have defected to it, however, leaving the DPP and KMT with an
overwhelming majority in the parliament.

Both China and Taiwan appear to be on a collision course. For his part,
Chen is pushing for Beijing to drop its “One China” policy. He is relying
on Taiwan's considerable US-supplied military arsenal, the lever of
extensive Taiwanese investment on the mainland and the assumption that the
US would intervene against China in any conflict. His position is also
strengthened by the current weakness of his domestic political opposition.

For the Beijing leadership, which has staked a great deal of its domestic
prestige and legitimacy on the nationalist push for China's reunification,
the election of a DPP president is a humiliation. Reports indicate that
president Jiang Zemin has come under pressure from the Chinese military and
elements in the government for being soft on Taiwan.

Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who met with Jiang Zemin and
Premier Zhu Rongji earlier in April, told the South China Morning Post: “In
their view, Taiwan has slipped further and further down the road to
independence. They want Chen Shui-bian to accept the ‘One China' principle.
With that, there is no room for flexibility, it was explained to me.”

China has issued threats against Taiwanese corporations that supported the
DPP during the election. Li Bingcai, a deputy director of the mainland
Taiwan Affairs Office stated on April 8: “Some people in Taiwan's
industrial and commercial fields openly clamour for ‘Taiwan independence'
and advocate the ‘Lee Teng-hui line'.... Meanwhile they scrabble for
profits by engaging in business and economic operations on the mainland...
Such a situation will not be allowed to continue”.

As a result Acer, which operates computer assembly lines in China and views
the mainland as its largest future market, publicly stated it supported
Taiwan's ultimate reunification with China. Other companies have denounced
Beijing and responded with their own threats that Taiwanese firms will
reduce their investment on the mainland.

China's insistence that Chen immediately commit to reunification is also
conditioned by the possibility of a Republican victory by George Bush in
the US presidential election in November. A win by Bush could lead to a
shift in US policy, which since 1972 has recognised Beijing as the
legitimate government of China. A Republican administration may move
towards closer ties and diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Layers within the Republican Party have long viewed Taiwan, with its
strategic position vis-à-vis the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea
shipping lanes, as the frontline in an effort to block China's emergence as
a regional Asian political and economic power. They are now gaining a wider
hearing and Bush has solidarised himself with their standpoint by declaring
that China is a “strategic competitor” of the US.

In the Washington Post on March 31, a leading Republican right-winger,
Senator Jesse Helms, wrote: “The United States must recognise the reality
of two Chinese states by championing Taiwan's gradual entry, alongside
Communist China, into international organisations such as the World Trade
Organisation, the World Health Organisation and eventually the United

With both sides hardening on irreconcilable positions, the danger of war is
ever-present in the Taiwan Strait. The Hong Kong Chinese language paper
Ming Pao has reported statements by unnamed Chinese officials that if Chen
has not agreed to reunification negotiations on the basis of “One China” by
the time of his inauguration on May 20, then Beijing intends to
unilaterally set a deadline for such talks.


I have one short comment on this article. I don't think that it would be so
easy for Bush to maintain a hard line on China, because the US "business
community" (sounds so idyllic, doesn't it?), including the US Chamber of
Commerce, has billions of dollars invested in China and makes up the
"Pro-China" lobby in the US. The "realist" Henry Kissinger seems to be one
of their spokesmen. Although they may switch allegiences from party to
party from time to time, the business lobby has a tremendous influence over
US politicians in general and Republicans in particular. I think that
Bush's stand is much more positional, that he is temporarily using this
issue to distinguish himself from Gore. Remember that Clinton denounced
Bush Sr. for "coddling the butchers of Beijing" during the election
campaign in 1992, but then switched his line once he took office. If Bush
were to win, I think that he would tone down his anti-China rhetoric.

Of course, the military lobby, also longtime Republican supporters, might
be more likely to take a more bellicose position on China. I would guess,
though, that they would have a difficult time pushing a line not in the
interest of the rest of Wall Street.

But US business support for a moderate China policy is predicated on
China's continued support for the "reform" line. If China were to change
enough to really threaten the interests of US investors (a change that I
don't think Li Peng or his followers are currently willing or able to carry
out), then I think a military confrontation might be much more likely. I
think that such a change is only possible if forced from below. Those
Chinese government officials who constantly harp on the prime importance of
"stability" seem to be doing all they can to prevent such a change from
taking place.

Saul Thomas

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