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interviews: dr. joseph wu

What is it the people of Taiwan want in their relationship with China?

I think it is quite simple, and it can be complicated as well. It's simple, because the distribution of the public opinion is actually quite normal. The majority of the people here in Taiwan want status quo with China. That is the current situation. We don't want unification, because that brings uncertainty. We don't want independence, because that might bring war with China, and we don't want that. So in that sense, that is quite simple.

But it is complicated because status quo has been indicated or interpreted by different people in different ways. For example, some people say that the status quo is independence itself, and we are trying to preserve the independence. And some people says that the status quo is actually one country, just divided into two territories ruled by two different political parties, and we are bound to join together. So that brings complexity.

But if we look at the public opinion here, I think the public opinion is actually quite ready to accept the peace across the Taiwan Strait and ready to be more moderate in our relations with mainland China. The government has been doing all kinds of [things] to relax the tension across the Taiwan Strait.

Joseph Wu is a deputy director of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, where he specializes in democratization issues. In this interview, Wu tells FRONTLINE that public opinion shows that most Taiwanese want moderate relations with China. He discusses the military, economic, and political tactics China is using to try to resolve the "one China" question. Interview conducted early autumn 2001.

Isn't the fact that you've grown apart from China? Politically, you are now a democracy, very different from China. Therefore, the longer you are a democracy, the less chance you're going to reunite with China.

That might be true in more abstract terms, because in the early 1990s, Taiwan started to develop very rapidly toward democratization. Now Taiwan is a full-fledged democracy, and it is very different from mainland China. Democracy is a major factor when people consider the cross-strait policy. When we look at mainland China, it's highly authoritarian, and people wouldn't want to join force with highly authoritarian country. ...

I don't think any sensible intellectual in Taiwan will urge the government to just accept the But if we look at it in different terms, for example, globalization, Taiwan has been integrated into the international market economy. Taiwan has a tremendous amount of investment in mainland China. Visitors from mainland China to Taiwan, and from Taiwan to mainland China have been increasing in such a tempo that one-third of the current population has actually traveled to mainland China. So this kind of speed is going to lead to a different result, and internationalization or globalization is going to be a tremendous force in bringing Taiwan and China together.

What changes do you see in China itself which make you more confident about the future?

China is changing very rapidly in different directions, for example, in its economy. We saw that many of the coastal provinces, coastal cities, are developing so rapidly that some of the areas are seemingly more prosperous than Taipei. In terms of the military, it's also developing very rapidly. It's acquiring a modern aircraft and modern battleships. Its naval force and air force are developing so fast that Taiwan seems to be not having the competitive edge vis-à-vis China any more.

We also see that China is liberalizing itself in [other] areas. For example, in major urban areas, Western culture is allowed to go into mainland China. On a very grassroots level, China is also picking up democratization. They open up the village administrative positions to open election. So all kinds of things are changing and transforming China. ...

It seems that everyone in Taiwan is hoping for a status quo. That status quo can't survive, can it?

It's hard to say whether this status quo can survive, because status quo might change. ... The current status quo was forged in 1972 when Richard Nixon traveled to Shanghai and signed the Shanghai Communiqué with the Chinese leaders. They recognized that Taiwan is going to be part of China. But if we look at development in these few years, the background of Shanghai Communiqué and the background today are totally different. The reason why the United States signed Shanghai Communiqué with mainland China was because there was a threat from the Soviet Union. China was highly totalitarian and Taiwan was also very authoritarian under Chiang Kai-shek. So that was the background.

But today things are changing. There's no more Soviet threat. China is rapidly rising in its power and talent and democracy. It's prosperous, and it's grasping the universal value of human rights, democracy and that kind of thing. So when all this kind of background information is different, we have a new situation. We have a new reality, so of course the status quo is going to be pushed by this or that force.

So with all these changes going on, how do you see the future?

Oh, I see the future in different ways. On the one hand, we see the force of globalization is kicking in. For example, Taiwan is making a tremendous amount of investment in mainland China. The figure is about $50 billion. Taiwan is also trading with China, and the amount is also growing and growing by the day.

The number of people [who travel] from Taiwan to mainland China is also increasing tremendously. One-third of the population has traveled to mainland China. In Shanghai area, about one percent of the population are actually Taiwanese taking up residence there. So we see very close interactions between the two societies. But on the other hand, we also see some things that are not the way that we wanted to see.

For example, mainland China has very intense competition among bureaucracies, and because of the bureaucratic politics, it is very hard for the Chinese top leaders to come up with a more moderate, more sensible, more reasonable policy to deal with Taiwan, to win over Taiwan's heart. The military has always been a very strong voice. In the 1980s and first part of the 1990s, the military was able to run their own enterprises, and the military was happy with that. But the military now is prohibited from running enterprises. So they need to get a bigger share of the national budget, and in order to do that, they need to have some tension here and some tension there.

Taiwan is very conveniently located right next to China, so they want some tension in order to get a bigger share of the national budget. That is what they've been trying to do. And because of the intense bureaucratic competition inside China, no political leader in China is able to appear to be soft on Taiwan, because that is dangerous to their own political career. This kind of development is going to lead to the opposite effect of what we need to see in a peaceful solution in between Taiwan and China.

Do you think this spy plane collision was used by the military for their own interests?

There are drastically different interpretations on how the military is playing in this incident. Indeed, the military is seen to be playing up with the incident and pressuring the civilian government to apply pressure on the United States. The civilian government has to honor the pilot that has been killed in the incident. So the whole thing shows that the military still has a very strong voice in China's decision making, in foreign policy area or in the military affairs. The incident shows that military has a very strong say in most of the policy in China. ...

What are the Chinese tactics in dealing with Taiwan?

They're taking several fronts at the same time, and some of them have been more successful than others. They've been using military threat against Taiwan ever since 1995 and 1996, when they used missiles to threaten Taiwan. They understood that ... was having a serious impact because of their threatened tactics. So they decided to deploy increasing number of missiles across Taiwan Strait right in Fujian and Jiangxi area.

The current estimate is that they have somewhere around 358 missiles, N-9s and N-11s targeted at Taiwan. They are also developing cruise missiles and MERVs, the multi-warhead retrievable targeted at Taiwan. So that is going to intimidate Taiwan, and they think that this is a very convenient vehicle to pressure Taiwan to accept the political conditions.

On the other hand, they also try to use the very high number of investment Taiwan has in mainland China and trying to urge these people, these businessmen, these investors in mainland China, to pressure the Taiwanese government to a more open policy. For example, the government just announced yesterday that it will try to lift the "be patient" policy, open up to more of the open policy to invest in mainland China. The government is going to allow for direct flight and direct shipment to mainland China after some intense studies. So these kinds of things are bearing fruit.

At the same time, they are also using what we call united front -- trying to ally with your enemy's enemies. They are trying to ally with all the opposition parties here in Taiwan. They talk directly to these people. They welcome these representatives from Taiwan's opposition parties to mainland China as dignitaries, as national guests, to try to isolate the government. They're using all these kinds of tactics against Taiwan, and some of them are bearing fruits as well. For example, in the united front tactics, the government is not able to deal with mainland China directly. Many of the things have to go through the opposition parties who are travelling to mainland China, and that is making the government issue on cross-strait issue very difficult.

It's almost ridiculous when they can't negotiate directly with Beijing.

That's right. That's right. They are saying that Taiwan needs to agree with some of the political conditions in order to allow direct flight from Taipei to Shanghai. But at the same time, they don't want to open up to direct negotiations with Taiwan. ...

Only recently there's been a move within Taiwan to relax investment controls so the companies can invest more and to start direct trade links with China. How do you think that's going to be received in China?

I think that's going to be received in China in favorable terms. Basically Chinese leaders and the public as well looked at the policy of President Lee Teng-hui in prohibiting anything that is higher than $50 million investment in mainland China as very hostile. So relaxing this kind of limitation in the investment in mainland China is going to be received favorably in mainland China, for sure.

One gets the impression that, if only Taiwan would in principle accept "one China," then you might have decades to work out what that actually means. Why doesn't Taiwan just say, "OK, in principle we accept China, but we want to bend developments in China?"

That seems to be quite simple, and actually that's what many people here think. Many people here think that if we just accept the "one China" principle, things will be all right, just as China said, and will open up the direct link with mainland China. We will welcome the Chinese tourists to Taiwan, and Taiwan's economy will be rising again, things like that.

But things may not be going that simple, because the way we understand China is that they may not be willing to have a full open to Taiwan at the current moment, because they have their own internal difficulties. Their internal difficulties, on the one hand, are very intense bureaucratic politics. Any kind of drastic change on their part of Taiwan policy toward Taiwan is going to trigger some unpredictable consequences inside mainland China. We're likely to see that some of the bureaucracies will try to fight against each other to vie for a different position in the Taiwan policy decision-making process. The way we understand it is they don't want to see that happening in China.

Another thing is that the Chinese succession is coming up next year, and they don't want anything to go wrong inside mainland China. Changing Taiwan policy in a drastic term is not going to be predictable in their transition process. The succession might lead to chaotic situation if there's a sudden change of their Taiwan policy, because Taiwan policy is still very sensitive to their political leaders. Anyone who wants to appear to be more moderate in Taiwan policy is likely to be portrayed by his political opponents as too soft on Taiwan as a traitor in their nationalism, and they don't want that to happen. ...

The Taiwan side is sensing that, when we agree with "one China," we might not have anything in return from mainland China, and that will put Taiwan in jeopardy because we have put ourselves in a position that we are part of them. But they are not promising anything else, and the government cannot take that kind of risk. I don't think anyone, any sensible intellectual in Taiwan, will urge the government to just accept the "one China" principle without knowing what China would do in return.

What's China going to do in return to make the "one China" principle acceptable?

I think China has to start to hammer on the details. For example, they will have to say that in [terms of] Taiwan's entry into the World Trade Organization, they will not do anything to hamper on that, and on Taiwan's normal participation in international organizations. They will have to figure out a way to safeguard Taiwan's position in international society.

And they will have to announce -- and this is the bottom line -- that they are not going to use force against Taiwan. But they are not saying that these kinds of things yet. In fact, they're saying that [they] will never give up the use of force against Taiwan.

And that is not a good idea to say.

That's a terrible idea to say.


Because people don't like it, and that is pushing Taiwan further and further away. It's very counter-productive in saying these kinds of things.

So the more threats China uses, the more missiles it puts around your borders, the more--

-- the more people would tend to see China as very hostile, and the people's reaction will be to keep a safe distance with China.

Do you think the majority of people in Taiwan could ever accept "one China" without much greater democracy within China?

I doubt it. ... Currently, Taiwan has different ideas of what "one China" is, but at the same time, China is trying to impose this "one China" principle on Taiwan. That's where the difference is. But if the two sides can get together and figure out what they describe as "one China," and their description of "one China" is so loose that Taiwan feel that it's not threatening, then that's fine.

So you can't even agree on what is "one China"?

Exactly. And China is saying that we have to agree with their terms before the negotiation can start.

But at the end of the day, your freedoms and your position as a democracy -- all those de facto -- depends on America.

Yes, to a significant degree.

Without America's support, Taiwan can't be independent, or it can't have its status quo. It can't be as independent as it virtually is. Yet they want you to be part of China, don't they?

Yes, yes. That's the dilemma. The people in Taiwan and the government tried to work out a way to deal with China in a peaceful way and we tried to coexist peacefully and have special relations with China. After all, we share the same cultural bond. But at the same time, the international strategic environment makes it somehow difficult because we are importing a lot of weaponry from the United States, and some of the U.S. politicians are telling us quietly, "If you work out your differences with China, how about all these modern weaponry? Are they going to go to China?" China knows our American secret, and we don't want that.

Taiwan needs to respect the ideas and the decisions of the United States. There's no doubt about that, because Taiwan's survival depends to a significant degree on the goodwill and the willingness of the United States to support Taiwan. So far, the United States has been very supportive of Taiwan, so we have to be very sensitive about what the United States is thinking. Currently we have very close interactions between Taiwan's government and the U.S. government and the kind of ideas can be flowing back and forth in between each other. So we are fine, so far, in terms of warding off China's possible aggression against Taiwan.

The American policy certainly before President Bush came to power was strategic ambiguity. Do you think it's changed under the president?

I don't agree with the idea that there was a strategic ambiguity under Clinton administration, or that the Bush administration is changing tremendously the policy from its previous administration. Because in 1996, when China was resorting to military exercises and missile threat against Taiwan, the United States government under Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to Taiwan area. Those two groups were composed of 16 ships, and that's a tremendous act on the part of the United States. It's sending a very clear message to China that Taiwan cannot be attacked unprovoked. That is strategic clarity for the people who are doing the security studies.

Another part of the this strategic clarity is that if Taiwan is provoking mainland China, for example, [by] declaring Taiwan's independence, that kind of thing, then the United States is probably not going to help Taiwan, and that is quite clear as well. But the U.S. administration under Clinton was not saying it very clearly because, as they said, they don't want to appear to give Taiwan a blank check so Taiwan can act recklessly. The Bush administration is somehow more clear on these kinds of ideas. But actually that policy has been continuation of the 1996 policy toward Taiwan.

So you're absolutely sure that America will come to your aid if China makes any more threats against you or starts using force?

I think so. At least that's my personal belief. I have full confidence in Americans.

But you're an advisor to the government. Do you think that's [its belief]?

I think many of them have that kind of belief as well. But many of the decision makers at the same time caution that, if we depend on the United States to that degree, Taiwan might lose its autonomy in its own policy making. That's a dilemma we face.

Whether we want autonomy in our policy making or we want protection from the United States, the consensus is that we should maintain a very strong force by ourselves and we should be able to defend ourselves in times of crisis. If we are able to defend ourselves, then we don't need to rely so heavily on outside forces to come in and intervene on our behalf, and then we will maintain some of our policy autonomy. But apparently that's going to be very difficult. ...

Some people ... argue that it would be preposterous for America to go to the defense of Taiwan. It would then be taking on a country it recognizes, a country it's got huge trading relationships with, [for the sake of] a country that doesn't actually represent at all. Isn't that the truth of it -- that, economically, it's just not in America's interests to come to your aid?

... If the United States decides not to come in to help Taiwan, ... then that would put the United States in a more serious [situation] than ever. Because in the strategic environment in this area, countries like Korea, Japan, are going to look at United States as a country that cannot be trusted any more. What if Japan is attacked? Is United States going to come in? What happens if Korea is attacked? So the countries in the area will look at United States' commitment to the security of the area with a different view, and that would make the U.S. position much more difficult.

I see it in a more complex way. On the one hand, economic development is very conducive to the establishment of more liberal, more democratic political system, and that kind of experience has been repeated throughout the world, including the experience of Taiwan. But on the other hand, if we look at the variables inside China, I personally worry about the consequences of rapid economic development.

How dangerous is the Taiwan Strait for America and the rest of the world?

I would say it's quite dangerous, because there is a high degree of competition in terms of military build-up across the Taiwan Strait. If we look at the traditional force, China already has 60, 70 submarines in the area and Taiwan only has four. So in that area China has significant power if they decide to have a blockade against Taiwan.

In terms of air force, China has been acquiring 150 SU-27s. They are in the process of having SU-30s and more advanced Russian-made aircraft. In the area of our naval forces, they are having four mini-class destroyers equipped with SSM-20 missiles. Currently there seems to be no defense against those missiles, and those missiles have a range of 120 sea miles. So China is adding more and more to its weapon inventory in terms of more traditional weaponry and in terms of strategic weaponry.

They are adding 50 missiles more per year to their deployment, and currently they have about between 350 to 400. And they're still adding on and there's nothing seems to be able to slowing them down. They also developing cruise missiles and the multi-warhead missiles. Currently, even though people are talking about missile defense, there's no defense against cruise missiles or MERVs.

So the situation is developing into something that worries a lot of people here in Taiwan. It worries a lot of decision-makers in the United States as well. The way we see it is that China is developing all these kinds of weapons very rapidly and deploying them so that they can have a total overwhelming force against Taiwan by the year 2005 or 2010. Then Taiwan will be subsumed, because if Taiwan is not able to keep up with this kind of pace of military competition against each other, then Taiwan is not likely to sustain a blockade or military attack. ... So that has political consequences and military consequences. So the people here in Taiwan will get a situation with worry, and I'm sure the decision-makers in Washington, D.C., are looking at a situation with a lot of concerns growing.

Do you think they really are planning for a blockade?

I'm not sure whether they will actually go into military actions, but they are having all kinds of war games and simulations of what they plan to do against Taiwan. Blockade is one of the ways that they can actually have an overwhelming force against Taiwan. That is the prime reason why Taiwan needs to purchase some of the anti-submarine aircraft from the United States in the recent wholesale package.

Do you think it's right that President Bush gave the go-ahead for Taiwan being able to buy that?

Yes, I think so. I think President Bush is quite forthcoming in allowing the United States to sell Taiwan the necessary weapons in order for Taiwan to defend itself. Included in this package is twelve anti-submarine aircraft, as well as eight submarines.

Of all the conflicts in the world, as you look at the Taiwan Strait, how do you rate that as a potential flashpoint?

I would say it's probably the most dangerous flashpoint in the entire world, because once a war erupts here, then many countries are going to be drawn in. The United States is probably not going to sit idle. Japan and other countries in the area might have to react, because Taiwan Strait happens to be a very important sea link communication channel. The channel cannot afford to be shut down. So many countries will be drawn into the situation. When there's a war in between Taiwan and China, that will probably be another world war. Many people will be involved for sure.

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