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Taiwan's New President: One If and Five Nos

by Harvey Sicherman

2 June 2000

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state. He is co-editor, with Murray Weidenbaum, of "The Chinese Economy: A New Scenario" (FPRI Report, 1999) and co-author, with Alexander M. Haig, Jr., of "New Directions in U.S.-China Relations" (FPRI Report, 1997).

Reprinted with permission from FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For membership information, contact Alan Luxenberg at 215- 732-3774, ext. 105 or fpri@fpri.org

Taiwan's New President: One If and Five Nos

by Harvey Sicherman

The surprise election of Chen Shui-bian to the presidency of the Republic of China on Taiwan on March 18 threatened a major crisis for the island, the PRC, and the United States when each could least afford it. The vote was an unalloyed triumph for democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from the once authoritarian KMT to the DPP, many of whose members, including the new president, had been jailed in earlier times. But Chen, as the DPP candidate, earned only 39% of the vote, hardly the mandate for his party's platform, which, among other things, emphasizes a Taiwanese Taiwan independent of China.

The election also illustrated Beijing's weak grasp of Taiwanese politics. Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji had both warned the island's voters not to choose the DPP; Chen's election, even if not by a majority, was still a stunning repudiation of the mainland's advice. The vote itself had come at a most awkward moment in U.S.-Chinese relations: the PNTR legislation was at stake. Nor did the Clinton Administration, as its term wound down, want a major crisis in the Strait, especially over Taiwanese independence. Washington had just finished months of damage-control following the "two-states" pronouncement by ROC President Lee Teng-hui that threatened to sweep away the carefully constructed One-China theology considered essential to an uneasy, but still peaceful, status quo.

Chen Shui-bian, however, proved mindful of all these dangers from the outset, and he moved swiftly to emphasize continuity in cross-strait relations. Both his defense and foreign ministers are highly respected KMT men and the word has gone out that Chen understands the margins of maneuver.

This impression was reinforced by Chen's May 20th inaugural address, displaying his mastery of the theology while still giving a distinctive twist to the cross-strait rhetoric. At various points, the speech reverberates with echoes of Lee Teng-hui and invocations of the DPP, even as he detaches himself from both:

(1) Chen repeats Lee's "Taiwan Stands Up" flourish (so irritating to the PRC because it borrows from Mao's 1949 declaration "We have stood up") and also portrays Taiwan's democracy as the vanguard of Chinese civilization -- "an epochal landmark for Chinese communities around the world," another perennial Lee theme.

(2) He also invokes Lee's concept of the presidency, a neo-Gaullist levitation beyond party strife, with his benchmark "rule on the basis of majority public opinion."

(3) Chen strikes a distinctly technocratic note, calling for a transformation of government's role to facilitate high-end economic growth rather than to own or manage industry.

(4) He invokes the modern trends, "quality life," "refined lifestyles," a "sustainable green silicon island."

(5) He promises an all-out assault on corruption, especially political corruption, invoking the DPP slogans to "rule by the clean and upright" and to end "black gold" -- organized crime in politics.


While these themes borrow liberally from the KMT and DPP, most international attention has been focused on the half- dozen paragraphs threading their way through the conflicting cross-strait currents. Here Chen displays a mastery of the metaphysics while still reserving his own position. For example, Chen takes some pains to put Taiwan in China's historical orbit. He associates the island's suffering with the mainland's at the hands of imperial aggressors. But then he sets forth another history: "However, due to long periods of separation, the two sides have developed vastly different political systems and lifestyles . . . creating a wall of divisiveness and confrontation." Still, the Cold War being over, an era of reconciliation may be at hand because "the people across the Taiwan Strait share the same ancestral, cultural, and historical background." Then comes the punch line, or perhaps the tickle line: ". . . we believe that the leaders on both sides possess enough wisdom and creativity to jointly deal with the question of a future 'One China'."

Invoking his responsibility for the "sovereignty, dignity, and security" of the Republic of China, Chen then clarifies the future through the "one if" and the "five nos." The one if: "the CCP regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan." The five nos: no declaration of independence; no change in the "national title"; no "state- to-state description in the Constitution"; no referendum to change the status quo; no abolition of the National Unification Council nor the Guidelines for National Unification. These "nos" comprise a repudiation of Lee Teng-hui's two- state approach and a promise to retain the status quo, which, in the Unification Guidelines, still declare Taiwan's objective to be unification, that is, One China. Yet, One China has now become a "question." And he invokes traditional Chinese wisdom, advising Beijing "when those afar will not submit, then one must practice kindness and virtues to attract them."

Thus does One China appear and tantalizingly recede, putting the onus on Beijing to make it more attractive than before. And while the theologians parse his meaning, Chen moves rapidly to praise the PRC leaders for their "economic openness" and to propose greater contact for the benefit of the entire region and the world. Lest the speech be thought too Chinese, Chen reverts in his close to "Taiwan our eternal Mother."


In advance of the speech, reports surfaced that both the PRC and the ROC had asked American help to restart their dialogue. This can be exaggerated as Washington has been careful not to put itself in a mediator's role; still, it is likely that the draft ideas were known to both the U.S. and the PRC in advance. Beijing's reaction was muted, not only because of the trade issue then pending in Congress, but probably also out of genuine relief that Chen had mastered the intricacies of the dance. Indeed, PRC commentators have emphasized the portion of the White Paper issued this past February (see my E-Note "China's Three Ifs," March 3, 2000) that calls for a return to the 1992 formula allowing both sides to negotiate unofficial functional arrangements under the banner of "One China (definition optional). Chen, for his part, has clearly preferred not to define it at all except as a question for the future.

Beneath the theology, there now lies a reaffirmation by both sides that they are not about to break the status quo. Chen has signalled his willingness to negotiate practicalities within that ambiguity; he is a Taiwanese, but a realistic one, willing to acknowledge the island's Chinese "tint" both past and present but unwilling to break with the popular mandate that dictates neither independence nor unification anytime soon. For this he wants the PRC to sheath its threats. No doubt Beijing believes that its militancy has spiked Chen's DPP inclinations, but its willingness to revert to the older ambiguities on One China offer hope that the earlier functional track of cooperation may be resumed. If this is so, then the White House can breathe a massive sigh of relief. At the end of the day, President Clinton will be able to pass the problem on to his successor.

Reprinted with permission from FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For membership information, contact Alan Luxenberg at 215- 732-3774, ext. 105 or fpri@fpri.org