BEIJING — Now what? Since Taiwan has elected Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party as its next president, despite heavy-handed Chinese efforts to discourage this outcome, what does Beijing do next?
The official answer from the mainland’s leadership is “we must wait and see.” But when asked what they are waiting for or what they hope to see, Chinese officials seem unclear. Beyond futile hopes that Chen will somehow endorse a “one China” policy that accords with Beijing’s definition, people in Beijing seem to be at a loss for words.
It’s too bad this speechless condition did not strike them sooner. Even the most ardent Taiwan critics privately acknowledge that the overabundance of very harsh words by China’s President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji in the days before the election now make it much more difficult to seek or find common ground with the new DPP government.
Chinese officials still argue — and I believe this is more than just “spin” — that Beijing saw the need, regardless of who ultimately won, to lay down a marker against “independence” actions in advance of the election. As it became more and more apparent that Chen might win — Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-Chen’s March 10 endorsement of Chen is seen as the turning point by many PRC analysts — the sense of urgency in delivering this message increased.
The good news is that, since the election, Beijing has refrained from making matters worse. “We have no choice, we must learn to deal with Chen Shui-bian” has been a common refrain during my discussions with Chinese officials and security analysts, who also acknowledge that “even Chen is an improvement over Lee Teng-hui.”
One thing is clear: Future progress in cross-Strait relations will require a new formula. Leaders in Beijing are now being forced to confront the reality that almost everyone in Taiwan has long recognized; namely, that “one country, two systems” — the formula used to incorporate Hong Kong and Macau back into the mainland — will never work for Taiwan. What’s needed is a new construct that permits Beijing’s “one China” policy and Taipei’s quest for equal or “special state-to-state” relations to coexist. This is difficult, but by no means impossible.
Chen has been very cautious in his pronouncements on cross-Strait policy. If, as DPP officials have hinted, he successfully removes the clause in the DPP party platform that advocates the establishment of a “Republic of Taiwan,” this must be seen as a significant olive branch. During the campaign, he also promised not to seek a revision of Taiwan’s constitution or a referendum on reunification/independence if elected; two significant DPP policy reversals that he presumably will now honor. In another important conciliatory gesture, Chen has also intimated that he is willing to talk about “one-China.” “As long as we are treated as equals,” Chen has pledged, “there is nothing we cannot discuss.”
Meanwhile, Beijing’s “wait and see” attitude and its expressed view that “as long as ‘one China’ is acknowledged, all things are possible” also leave room for maneuver. Beijing has long been willing to go back to the good old days when both sides agreed to disagree on what “one China” meant; they just want to keep this fig leaf in place. Beijing must understand that Chen has limited flexibility in dealing with cross-Strait issues, and that he also has higher, more urgent priorities (like figuring out how to govern).
Nonetheless, there are a few additional steps Chen can take to send positive signals to Beijing. He can ask Taiwan’s highly respected elder statesman Koo Chen-fu to stay on as head of the Straits Exchange Foundation in charge of cross-Strait dialogue with the mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. Chen’s invitation to ARATS Chairman Wang Daohan to attend his inauguration will no doubt be rejected. But Chen could still proposal an early meeting between Koo and Wang, perhaps in some neutral location such as Hong Kong or Singapore, to “discuss conflicting interpretations of ‘one China.'”
President-elect Chen could also call for a comprehensive review of Taiwan’s defense needs, including a realistic assessment of current and likely future threats, and stress that any decision regarding Taiwan’s participation in theater missile defense will be contingent on this review. He could also urge the U.S. Congress to withhold action on the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act pending completion of this study (while calling off Taiwan’s lobbyists who continue to vigorously push for its passage). This would defuse several potentially explosive issues. It would also remind Beijing that a renewal of threatening gestures will have consequences.
Beijing’s wait-and-see attitude is a step in the right direction. The key to future reconciliation, however, rests in China’s ability to recognize and then positively respond to the positive gestures that are already emanating from Taipei.
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