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Friday, March 11, 2005

Taipei Times - archives > Taiwan's fate difficult to predict

Taipei Times - archives

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎

Thursday, Mar 10, 2005,Page 8

`The two men's agreement ... was an important step, but like all agreements under these circumstances, is sufficiently ambiguous to allow flexible interpretation if needed in the future.'

In today's world, globalization is seen primarily as a process of economic integration, which inevitably will be linked to closer political and security integration as well. But the cross-strait relationship has been challenging that conventional wisdom.

The growing economic ties between Taiwan and China, for example, have brought the sides closer together, but the political and security relationship has seen them drift further apart. Still, in both Washington and Taiwan, recent events have reawakened the conventional wisdom on globalization's political effects. That may turn out to be true. But by overhyping a warming of political as well as economic relations between the two sides, we may be too quickly avoiding reality.

The first transfer of power in Taiwan's government in 2000 was, inevitably, a difficult transition. The new governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had insufficient talent for running a government and inherited a bureaucracy that was, like the previous government, virtually indistinguishable from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It faced in the KMT an opposition party that had no experience being in the opposition, and saw its major objective as not just to defeat the new governing party, but to destroy it.

This situation clearly -- and predictably -- led to many errors. By the end of that first term, there were still many laws from the previous authoritarian government to be changed, many rules and traditions still to be addressed, a reluctance to fully utilize the bureaucracy, and a lack of effective communication with the people of Taiwan and with foreign governments. Taking all this into consideration, the conventional wisdom on the effects of globalization may yet be correct.

This overlooks -- or perhaps deliberately avoids -- the progress that have been made in this period despite the errors and the obstacles which Taiwan faces. The government has effectively encouraged a much greater involvement by voters not only through political parties but in the growth of non-governmental organization (NGO) involvement in political, civil and cultural matters.

Despite the political slogans and sensationalist media on all sides, ethnic differences have diminished, helped in great measure by the rise of new, born-in-Taiwan generations. And though this might not make China happy, there has been a much greater consensus on what the people want as Taiwan's identity. This is demonstrated both in countless polls and in the rapidly-closing gap between the major political parties on the identity issue.

It was clear, after the presidential elections in both the US and Taiwan, and the legislative elections in Taiwan resulted in little change; that another four-year delay in progress on the economy, cross-strait relations, and domestic welfare was unacceptable to the voters. Thus, we see the recent effort by the DPP to experiment in cooperation with opposition parties.

The most logical cooperation for the DPP would probably be with the KMT, which has both considerable expertise in governance, and also now a majority of "local" members (including not only native Taiwanese, but young Mainlanders as well) whose preferences, especially on sovereignty issues, are very close to those of the DPP. For the time being, however, the KMT is in the midst of choosing new leadership.

Deciding now on a cooperative arrangement with the third-largest party, the People First Party (PFP), had advantages in timing for the governing party, and in bolstering the PFP, which had suffered a setback in the legislative elections. The meeting between President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and PFP Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) brought considerable anguish for members of both the governing and opposition parties. The two men's agreement at the meeting was an important step, but like all agreements under these circumstances, is sufficiently ambiguous to allow flexible interpretation if needed in the future.

Though ambiguity is not exactly unknown in Washington, it's not given its due when used by others elsewhere. Likewise, media hype coming from Taiwan also seems to be taken more seriously. Neither ambiguity or media hype can be ignored, but both should be weighed realistically. The US, rightly in this case, probably sees this as a domestic issue and one that might even reduce cross-strait tensions.

To see this as a result of the legislative elections which were a serious setback for the governing party and a popular rejection of the path the government was taking on the identity issue. In this view, the momentum is now moving back to the middle ground. That's not impossible, but it's much too soon to come to that conclusion.

The legislative elections were important, and they clearly made it necessary for the governing party to shift gears to address changed circumstances. But there are other factors that will have an important influence on where Taiwan will go from here. The "anti-secession" law that China is now preparing to approve has already had a negative influence on the Taiwanese public. It is still uncertain how Taiwan will react when the law is approved, and what tensions will result.

Another important factor will be the KMT's decision on its next chairman. The KMT is no longer the governing party, and though it may not have the clout it once had in the legislature (the PFP will not automatically side with the KMT on some issues as a result of its arrangement with the DPP), it can do considerable harm in blocking the government's legislative wish list.

But the additional 12 legislative seats the KMT gained in the last election has also increased the number of "local" members. That means there isn't a wide chasm between the majority of members and the governing party on identity issues. There is little difference on the issue of unification with China. Some KMT members are even close to the DPP's pro-independence stance.

Despite pressure from Taiwanese business interests or China's new "anti-secession" law, Taiwan will continue pressing for international recognition as a country. If the momentum and the direction that might have been caused by the legislative election materializes, it is not likely to be a sharp turn.

Nat Bellocchi is the former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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