TWQ: Seizing the Opportunity for Change in the Taiwan Strait - Winter 2008
January 1, 2008
As Taiwan heads into dual national elections—a legislative election scheduled for January 12, 2008, and a presidential election scheduled for March 22, 2008—tensions across the Taiwan Strait seem to be rising. Among other developments, Taiwan applied to join the United Nations under the name "Taiwan," eliciting condemnation from Beijing and Washington for trying to change Taiwan's international status. Thomas J. Christensen, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, even gave a speech to reprimand Taiwan, eliciting a major reaction in Taipei, while officials in Washington debated whether to make good on prior commitments to sell certain arms to Taiwan. News leaked about Taiwan's development of missiles that could strike Shanghai. The two political parties in Taiwan debated over the form of a referendum on the status Taiwan should seek in the UN in the future, and the secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) resigned in a battle over the party's commitment to the ultimate goal of Taiwan independence.
Despite these alarms, deeper trends point in the opposite direction. Indeed, the most important result of the elections is already all but predetermined: Taiwan's next president will be a relative moderate on cross-strait issues. The island's highly competitive, often tactically Byzantine internal politics have for years wagged the dog of great-power politics in the region. The election next March of either of the two major-party candidates, Frank Hsieh (Hsieh Ch'ang-t'ing) of the DPP or Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT), will offer the potential for a shift in the tone and trajectory of cross-strait relations and with it the opportunity to reduce the risk that the United States could be drawn into an armed conflict with China.
Beijing and Washington must not waste the opportunity to put the triangular Taiwan Strait relationship on a path of declining tension. To act wisely, they need to understand what has produced the change in Taiwan's mood and what to do to assure that the still-fragile shift is not reversed.