TOPICS > Politics

China-Taiwan Relations

May 22, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Pledging to protect the safety of his people, 49-year-old Chen Shui-bian took the oath of office Saturday and became the first directly-elected president in Taiwan’s history. Chen also is the first Taiwanese president not to come from the ranks of nationalist party, which ran the country for five decades. Chen’s is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which long has promoted independence from Mainland China. But in his campaign, candidate Chen avoided any talk of independence, and in his inaugural address, he made additional promises to Beijing.

PRESIDENT CHEN SHUI-BIAN, Taiwan: As long as Mainland China has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence. I will not change our country’s official name. And I will not promote a referendum on the question of independence or unification.

KWAME HOLMAN: The speech was dissected across the strait in Beijing. President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues long have maintained Taiwan is part of China under the so-called “one-China” policy, and should return to the motherland. Within hours of Chen’s speech, the Communist party issued a statement, part of which was read on state-run TV.

CORRESPONDENT: (speaking through interpreter) The statement has an unclear and ambiguous attitude toward the one China principle so his so-called goodwill understanding is lacking of sincerity.

KWAME HOLMAN: The document states acceptance or rejection of the one China policy is the touchstone to test whether one sincerely wants to improve cross-strait relations, but in another paragraph it says the sides will express in their own way orally that both sides across the strait stick to the “one-China” principle. The statement also warns if anyone dare trigger a civil war again by splitting Taiwan from China, they must shoulder the historical responsibility for this sin. Yesterday, Taiwanese President Chen made another overture to Beijing. He promised to consider direct trade, transportation, and postal links with the mainland.

PRESIDENT CHEN SHUI-BIAN, Taiwan: (translated) Under the pre- condition that national security can be assured, we are willing to review the outdated, rigid and inflexible three-links policy. Taiwan shut off the so-called three links with China in 1949, when Communist forces took over the mainland and the nationalist government fled to Taiwan. Since then, all business deals have had to go through third parties, mostly in Hong Kong. But business has flourished recently, as Taiwan enterprises have invested some 40 billion dollars in China over the last two decades.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the weekend’s developments between Taiwan and China, we turn to: Winston Lord, a former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs and a one-time ambassador to China; David Brown, a former foreign service officer who headed the State Department’s Taiwan desk — today he’s associate director of the Asian Studies Department at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; and Merle Goldman, Professor of Chinese History at Boston University, and Research Associate at the Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research at Harvard. Merle Goldman, what do you make of President Chen’s inaugural speech?

MERLE GOLDMAN, Harvard University: Well, I think it was a moderate speech. It was conciliatory. And in contrast to the language that has been used by the leaders of the People’s Republic of China, he sounded very diplomatic. In fact I’ve just come back from China. And what impressed me was for the first time I heard various people in the think tanks and the institutes in Beijing and Shanghai talk about their leaders’ bellicose manner in a very negative way, they were critical. And this wasn’t just one on one, this was at discussions at dinners and so forth. And they contrasted their leaders’ bellicose language with the diplomatic language of Chen Shui-bian. So I think this is a moderate speech.

MARGARET WARNER: David Brown, is that how you read it, very conciliatory, very diplomatic?

DAVID BROWN, Former State Department Official: Yes. I think Chen who is very much a strong Taiwanese nationalist who has deep roots on the island who thinks of himself as a child of Taiwan, who has been associated with the party that has supported independence, has come a very long way in trying to hold out a hand of reconciliation and dialogue to Beijing.

MARGARET WARNER: But Winston Lord, he did very much tout, one, Taiwan’s democracy and its sort of independent spirit in that way. He also didn’t embrace the one China policy, which Mainland China had demanded he publicly do in his speech.

WINSTON LORD, Former U.S. Ambassador to China: Well, I agree with the others that this was a masterful speech. It blended conciliation and pride in Taiwan’s democracy, which of course makes the clear contrast with the repressive political system on the mainland. But he talked about shared history with China; he talked about possible discussions on the future of one China. It was as far as he could go; it was very conciliatory. He followed it up with a trip to the off shore islands where he talked about the three links economically and also underlined national security. So not only did he exhibit conciliation, I think in contrast to Beijing’s past rhetoric, but I think he elicited a relatively moderate response from Beijing. They didn’t attack him personally, they distinguished him in a follow-up commentary today from other people in his party, they agreed about the possibility of direct economic links; they talked about going back to a formula where the two sides talked in 1992. And in a backgrounder today, a senior official said that they understood he was in a delicate position, they’ve got to give him some time. And so this, by Beijing’s standards, is fairly moderate rhetoric. One other point I’d make, and Merle, referred to that, I think the people of China have been very impressed with what has happened on Taiwan, its democratic election, this transfer of power from one party to another, in great contrast to their own system.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Merle Goldman, how do you see China’s reaction to this weekend speech?

MERLE GOLDMAN: Well, certainly I think in the short run, the threat of war between China and Taiwan, I think that threat has waned. That doesn’t mean it won’t appear again, it could very well be. But I think in the short run it has waned. But Taiwan in the election they just had in many ways is in sharp contrast to the People’s Republic. The people in China see this. They see that for the first time in Taiwan you have a separation between the state and the party, between the party and the military. And most important, you have the election of an opposition party which promises to get rid of the corruption in the ruling party. And that is a concern of the people in China, they’re concerned with the corruption of the ruling party, the Communist Party. So there are many ways example of Taiwan, I think, is a threat — having nothing to say about the military problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that just the very contrast is threatening to the regime in Beijing?

DAVID BROWN: I entirely agree with Merle’s comments. And while we here focus very much on this election in terms of the cross straits aspect of it on Taiwan, it was very much an election over clean government, how to get rid of corruption that was associated with the KMT and move to something new,. And I think the people on the mainland who face a very similar problem, can’t help but be impressed by what the people of Taiwan have accomplished.

MARGARET WARNER: David Brown, also expand a little on a point you raised, which was you said President Chen someone who is really a nationalist has come a long way. He is from a party that advocates independence. He always advocated Taiwanese independence. Now we hear him give a speech where he says he won’t even move in that direction. What is his long-range strategy here, what’s he really doing?

DAVID BROWN: Well, what I think he’s doing, of course, is as a person who wanted to be elected in Taiwan, he’s appealing to the broad middle ground of people on Taiwan who want to preserve peace, don’t want to provoke the PRC and want essentially to try and live with harmony across the Taiwan straits. I think that his long-term game plan is to speak sweet words to the Mainland, and to be reasonable and to work on developing a more cooperative relationship across the straits, without in any way compromising Taiwan’s de facto independence.

MARGARET WARNER: Winston Lord, I know you met with him – what — just last month. How do you read him in terms of his long-range strategy here?

WINSTON LORD: First, I think he’s been very impressive in his rhetoric, his speech, his appointments — because he got elected with a minority of the vote. I think he is taking this posture, number one, to get some breathing space calm across the straits so he can tackle corruption, that he can make Taiwan competitive in the age of information and technology, which is what he basically got elected on, and to put Beijing on the defensive in terms of international and American opinion. Beijing has been forced now to back off from this bellicose rhetoric. We’re only home free until Wednesday’s vote in the House on China’s WTO entry, but I think China’s more moderate response will probably last at least until August when the leaders get together every year at a seaside resort to review policy.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that international pressure does have an impact on Beijing here?

WINSTON LORD: Well, I think they’re suspicious of Chen of course because of his past positions, because they feel they got blind sided by his predecessor. But I think they’re beginning to understand that Chen needs to build a national consensus on this issue, that he is trying to move to a more moderate position, and that they can’t really attack him now, because of the moderate position he’s a taken. And the commentary in the U.S., in Japan and Europe has been very favorable. That’s why this speech has been so magnificent — and also his emphasis on democracy and freedom, the clear contrast he draws with the Mainland.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Merle Goldman, put Beijing’s reaction this weekend in relationship to this white paper issued in February essentially threatening a military attack on Taiwan if Taiwan didn’t start unification talks. Where did that come, is that impulse still there as well?

MERLE GOLDMAN: I’m sure the impulse is still there. But it is a sharp contrast between the bellicose language and the threats of war, and in many ways the leadership really went out on a limb on this.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean out on a limb?

MERLE GOLDMAN: Well, they really threatened to go to war. And the question is, if they said, if Chen Shui-bian asserted independence for Taiwan, and in many ways I think they truly lost the support of their people. This is not a democratic country. But you could really feel the unrest among the population; they were frightened by it. And now their rhetoric has certainly changed. And certainly I think certainly to Wednesday — maybe a little longer. But it might resume again if they’re not able to resume, if there’s some kind of discussion between China and Taiwan in the future, I think that’s very important.

MARGARET WARNER: And how important personally do you think it is to President Jiang?

MERLE GOLDMAN: Oh, I think it’s very important to President Jiang. If he can get a dialogue going, if he can get some kind of discussion going between Taiwan and China, then the supposed more military elements within the Chinese government don’t really have a platform to stand on. And so I think it’s very important. It’s not clear who wants war with Taiwan. When I was in Beijing, they said some of the military officers. But certainly if you can resume the relationship in any way, just opening up the dialogue I think would be important.

MARGARET WARNER: And David Brown, how do you read President Jiang Zemin’s intentions here?

DAVID BROWN: He has to balance a wide variety of views in China on how to deal with Taiwan. They don’t have a clear strategy on how to accomplish what they want, which is to bring Taiwan back into the fold of China. And Jiang has to be very cautious not to do anything that would seem to appear to be, being soft on Taiwan, because this will expose him to criticism. And we have to recognize that there is a very strong nationalist consciousness that has grown up in the PRC in recent years, and this isn’t just one leader talking about bringing Taiwan back into the fold. There’s a strong sense that Taiwan ought to become part of China again.

MARGARET WARNER: Winston Lord, do you think that sentiment is stronger now than it was ten years ago — that sentiment of wanting to unify with Taiwan, and that it’s time to have it happen?

WINSTON LORD: I don’t think so. There is a danger here, though, and that is the leadership I think understands it’s considerable unrest in China. I think it’s the most fragile situation since Tiananmen Square, because of corruption, because of economic problems. Therefore there’s an appeal to nationalism to rally domestic populous, and Taiwan gets caught up in that. I think the average Chinese doesn’t want Taiwan to go independent, but they’re satisfied with the status quo if it doesn’t drift away. So basically we’ve seen good news the last few days, but it still remains a very dangerous problem.

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say that we saw — there’s that nationalist sentiment in the people as well, for instance when the U.S. bombed the embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese embassy.

WINSTON LORD: Well, there is nationalist sentiment. That of course sometimes is stirred up by Beijing’s leaders for its own purposes. But basically I think we’ve seen a very skillful play by Chen so far, and I think he is buying time to work on his domestic problems. And China now faces some difficult choices. I agree with Merle, they were very bellicose up until recently and now they’ll have to rethink their strategy, and it’s important that the U.S. continue to warn China against the use of force, even as it encourages Chen to continue his moderate policies.

MARGARET WARNER: And Merle Goldman, what’s your view on that about the U.S. role? About a couple weeks ago there were these stories floated that maybe both China and Taiwan wanted the U.S. to help mediate this. What can the U.S. or should the U.S. Role be here?

MERLE GOLDMAN: Well, I think the U.S. Role should encourage the leadership in Taiwan not to demand independence. I think they should encourage the leadership in Beijing to try to soften certainly the rhetoric, to be patient, to try to deal with their own internal problems, which as Winston said, are very severe. There are protests going on all over the country, in the countryside, in the cities — and say try to in a sense postpone the day when there will be what they call a unification. And it could very well be in time that maybe the People’s Republic will evolve into a different kind of political system. And I think that is what we should really be encouraging.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, David Brown, on the U.S. Role, what she just described is basically what the U.S. has been doing. Anything else?

DAVID BROWN: No. We need to send clear messages to Beijing that if they use force, there is going on the an American response to protect a vibrant democracy. We I guess have less worry today that we’ll have a government in Taiwan that will move in the direction of independence. So that message I think has gotten through. We don’t need to get involved in this specific negotiating between the two.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, David Brown, Merle Goldman, and Winston Lord, thank you all three very much.