THE TAIWAN DILEMMA? (issue nș 15)

by Serge Berthier

How can one focus on the island's problem? The island itself, whether you consider it as a country as some would like it to be, or as an estranged province of China that the foreign governments are quite happy to recognize as such, Taiwan, whatever it is, does not yet have a vision of what it is. The reason is simple. Taiwan is a vestige and a pawn. For all its claims of being a democracy, it is essentially a place without the essential luxury of life: freedom.

Of course, those who think that the right to purchase goods at whim, consume anything that is fashionable and elect from time to time politicians to a position of power are "human rights" would readily classify "Taiwan" as a free society. Yes, it is a place where capitalism is at its best, but very much like Hong Kong, the capitalistic structure of the economy has little to do with what liberty means. As for the democratic election of President Chen, Paul Yip, special adviser to the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR has a lot to say about the way it was carried out. Vote-buying is endemic and anyway, who cares!

Taiwan is in a jail of its own and one of the most difficult to escape because it is an ideological one. Taiwan is not alone in this case - the focus we did on Vietnam highlighted how difficult it is to discard the old ideologies that fashioned the world during the past century.

In Taiwan, in a way, the clock stopped in 1949. Time does not seem to matter much, and it didn't. After all the official "no haste - be patient" policy does not really date back from 1996, when Lee Teng-hui made it an official slogan. It dates from the day Mao took power in China.

We know that China has a long history, so the notion of time seems to be of a different scale. Taiwan, in that history, makes no exception. Time is different. Mao is dead and buried, and even Deng Xiao-ping is no longer there. Even Hong Kong is no longer British, but "so what" would say many officials!

Some might say that everything that was said before August 26th, 2001 is from now on irrelevant for the official policy of the past, the go-slow policy with China, was "officially" declared dead.

Should not we revise or trash in the dustbin of history the interviews? Don't we have to raise new questions? No, because, in spite of what was said, nothing has really changed and will change in the near future. The Prime Minister is still weary of any speedy move that would improve the "three links", telling the Legislative Yuan to take its time. As if forty years was not enough.

As serious analyst will see, readint the comments of the Taiwanese elite, the China issue, or what is called the "one-China principle" is very much a religious affair: either you believe in it or you don't. If you don't, then you are not part of it. But then, where do you belong? That's what the Taiwan dilemma is about. And of course, the answer is an easy one. Whether one likes it or not, Taiwan is Chinese and belongs to Chinese history. The rest is a political distraction.

That is why we have a fundamental inconsistency between facts and talks in Taiwan. With the exception of the Mayor of Taipei, Ma, but he is not part of the government, everyone is telling you that time was the best weapon against the Mainland. Of course it did not make sense, but it is interesting to read why people would cling to such an idea, because even today, having conceded defeat, they still cling to it. That is why not much is going to happen in the near future. Taiwan still expects the Mainland to come to grief someday.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, August 26th 2001, the Economic Development Advisory Committee of Taiwan, a low-profile and normally powerless body in the political life of the island was promoted as a "high-profile" institution in newspapers as diverse as the Wall Street Journal or the China Daily proposing to scrap the policies so far implemented by Taiwan towards the Mainland. Since it was a surrender and no politician was willing to endorse the obvious failure of Lee Teng-hui's 1996 vision, it was imperative to give the shadowy advisory committee as large a cover as possible to hide those who only weeks ago were still promoting the failed policy.

What was happening on the economic front was already known for months, if not for years. After all, when Lee Teng-hui took power, Taiwan had about USD 90 billion dollars in its coffers to fight the government of Deng Xiao-ping that had just about 1 or 2 billion in financial reserve to back up its open policy. Today Jiang Zemin can rely on USD 500 billion (Hong Kong and China combined), while Taiwan can rely on one-fifth of that. So the picture was clear and the Taiwanese businessmen are no fools. They were not waiting for the scholars and politicians to come to their senses to invest where it matters.

If the media had been candid, their headlines on August 26th should have been: Taiwan has lost the economic battle. But they were more subdued so that the Taiwanese people would not be shocked to discover what everybody else knew. Taiwan does not matter, it is China that matters.

The proposals of August 26th were:

- replace the five-year old "go-slow" policy implemented by Lee Teng-hui, which restricts trade with and investment on the Mainland with one "advocating aggressive opening, effectively managing risks"

- aggressively push for direct trade, transport and postal links with the Mainland in line with entry into the WTO.

- end the US$50 million investment cap on individual investment projects on the Mainland and review future application on case-by-case basis

- lift cap on total investment on the Chinese Mainland by listed Taiwan firms

- allow Taiwan banks to open branches on the Mainland

- allow Mainland investment in Taiwan property and stock markets

- allow Mainland tourists to visit Taiwan.

Of course, the proposals did not include timetables and would be subjected to "effective monitoring". In effect, it means a protracted battle within the ruling party and the opposition, with China watching the outcome with glee.

Chen Sui-ban has guaranteed to implement all the results worked out by the committee comprising 120 members from all sides. They run contrary to the very platform of the DPP, but he has no choice. His current Chairperson at the Mainland Affairs Council, Dr Tsai has no choice too but to comply. Yet weeks before, she was telling us the Mainland was a risk for Taiwan. Would she say now the reverse while the US$50 million limit on a single investment is scrapped? As Koo Chen-fu, Taiwan's top negotiator in dealings with the mainland pointed out, the proposed lifting of the limits had great significance. It could be the "beginning of an economic integration".

But since the Chairperson of the MAC, the Finance Minister, the head of the most important think-tank of the island and even the Prime Minister were exactly saying the reverse in early August, what is going really to happen?

More talks. more political stands, and more hot air, I assume. After all, Lee Teng-hui is no Deng Xiao-ping. Short-sighted as he was when he decided to shield Taiwan from China on the assumption that the Beijing authorities would soon collapse and the Mainland economy would crumble in the process, he is still arguing strongly that it is wrong to expand economic ties with China. "Selling out, as he puts it, shows a lack of self-respect and Taiwan should show self-respect"!

If the so-called "no haste, be patient" policy of Lee Teng-hui is officially declared bankrupt, does that mean that the Taiwan issue will fade away? Unfortunately not. The admission that the economic agenda was wrong did not touch on the ideological issue of the "one-China principle".

As expected, China responded through the Xinhua agency that if Taiwan wants to see a stable cross-Straits relationship, it was unrealistic to just walk out of the current stalemate by just focusing on dealing with economic issues. The commentary went further, saying that the basis for an improved environment is recognition of the "one-China principle", as well as the consensus reached by Beijing's Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and the Taipei's Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) in 1992.

However Mayor Ma, a KMT stalwart, is telling us that the 1992 consensus is no longer in the mind of the Chinese authorities. Yet, by referring again to it in its latest comment, China left the door open for a meeting between ARATS and SEF to clear the air.

The strange thing about Taiwan is that observers on all sides had the feeling that the defeat of the KMT was the end of an ideological dictatorship and a step forward towards more openness and more pragmatism. The election of a DPP president could have been to Taiwan what the open-door policy of Deng Xiao-ping had been to China.

Maybe it is too early to say, but from what we heard and what is happening, it is not the case. Taiwan is still mired into ideological arguments and heavy propaganda and the ordinary Taiwanese does not know much about the Mainland. It still believes that the life under the current Beijing government is a succession of long suffering.

As long as Taiwan does not recognize its Chineseness, it does know what it is. As Mayor Ma points out, a culture and a political party are not exactly the same thing.

But the most troubling aspect of the "Taiwan dilemma" is that it is a kind o protectorate in disguise. It is quite obvious that, small as it is, but crucial to the geopolitical views of the United States on the Pacific area, it is a pawn in a bigger game. And no one in Taiwan dares at this stage to challenge such a situation (Taiwan is not alone in this uncomfortable position. South Korea and Japan share the same burden and so far only Kim Dae-jung is trying in a subdue manner to challenge the legacy of history).

The political elite, bruised but not out of the picture for such all its failure (you never get rid of failed politicians, they reincarnate all the time) is alreadyturning its attention elsewhere where money is in short supply and faith in abundance.

If Taiwan has lost the economic battle, remains the ideological one. So Taiwan is now convincing itself that it will win the political one for, we are told, it will bring democracy to China.

That new chimera has about has many chances to succeed that the Lee Teng-hui economic plot had to succeed. But it had a major advantage: it is like thin air. It costs nothing and until you drop dead you have nothing to prove about it. Yet, even on that front, Taiwan has to fix the house first before championing its democratic credential. With a President on one side of the political spectrum and a Legislative Yuan on the other, it has to learn how to live. Maybe, when Taiwanese have solved that issue (see the interview with Zhang Xianyao of the People First Party in this issue) and know how to "cohabite", then "cohabitation" with the Mainland will become understandable and acceptable. Until then, the clock will remain motionless.

Serge Berthier