The Divided China Problem

Date February 12, 2002
Speaker Ramon MYERS(Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University)


I would like to talk about what I call the "divided China problem" and what the US calls the "Taiwan problem." It has to do with the different beliefs in China and Taiwan. In China, the belief is that Taiwan is part of China. In Taiwan, there are two beliefs: one is that Taiwan is part of China and in the long run should be unified with mainland China under the doctrine of Sun Yat-sen. The other is Taiwanese nationalism, that Taiwan has been independent for decades; it should have a special, but normal diplomatic, relationship with China; and that the people should identify with Taiwan and not China. This is the view of Chen Shui-bian who has quietly, relentlessly promoting the institutions, both formal and informal, to promote Taiwan nationalism.

The Chen Shui-bian Administration was eager to talk with China, but not under the principle of "one China." Its president and officials believed in Taiwanese nationalism. Chen's administration's silent revolution meant the de-Sinification of Taiwan, the removal of symbols. For example, streets were renamed and "Taiwan" was stamped on passports. The Administration also promoted education reform. In new textbooks, as of 1997, there has been little mention of Chinese history. The government has been developing Taiwanese research institutes to promote Taiwan ethnicity. Overall, President Chen simply avoided talking about unification.

Mr. Chen's is a gambling strategy. Promoters of Taiwanese nationalism assume that unemployment will get worse in China. They view China's future negatively, now that the country has entered the WTO. There is a possibility that China may collapse, according to this view. They also have faith that the US will bail out Taiwan if military tensions get worse with China.

The opposition parties in Taiwan (the KMT and the People's First Party led by James Soong) have not yet worked together to present a unified front. There are personal animosities in the two parties. But the two groups do feel that Taiwan must engage China on the basis of a "one China" principle. They only disagree on who should lead and run in national elections.

In China, meanwhile, the belief regarding Taiwan is monolithic. China's 'one China' principle that Taiwan is a party of China was the basis for the 1972, 1979, and 1982 communiques with the US and the U.S. signed on to the "one China" principle. Recently, China came up with a new "one China" principle just for Taiwan-one that is flexible and different from the "one China" principle for other nations. So China has two "one China" principles. The new principle is similar to the KMT's in 1992. Taipei has rejected it, however, because they feel Beijing's leaders are insincere.

As Taiwan's economy has slumped, there has been more economic integration from Taiwan to China, especially to Shanghai. Meanwhile, China is inviting the liberal wing of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to develop contacts in China for "mutual benefit." But China has not invited the current Taiwanese government and it will not unless it agrees to the "one China" principle as a starting point.

How can this situation be resolved? If the DPP holds power conflict may rise. If a Taiwanese opposition party is elected, however, negotiations can begin. So the political power struggle will be fierce. A third possibility is that, since Taiwan is a democracy, there could be a moderation of the two visions so that some kind of reconciliation is still possible.

The US tries to keep good relations with both nations. With China, it has had three communiques, for Taiwan, it has the Taiwan Relations Act. The U.S. has adopted the policy of strategic ambiguity informing both sides it wants to see a peaceful resolution of the divided China problem, and it reserves the right to use force to ensure peace and prosperity in the region. That strategy so far seems to have worked well, unless the perception in Washington changes and U.S. leaders decide that China is a threat. If the US sees China as a threat, the US will move closer to Taiwan, even if it has a Taiwan nationalist government.

China would prefer a war or a blockade rather than accept state-to-state relations with Taiwan. But Taiwan's view is complex. If the WTO works for China and growth continues and the government reforms, then there will be hope for Taiwan to engage China. I believe that China will continue to open and reform, but it will be gradual.

The US is impatient. Lobby groups to save Tibet, promote human rights, anti-proliferation, and other interests are competing to influence US policy toward China. We have managed to smooth it out, but this "success" has been associated with mutual suspicion growing on both sides. Mutual suspicions have also been made worse by the continued divided China problem.

Questions and Answers

Q: Will the WTO convince Taiwan to relax its three bans against China?

China will not want to talk about WTO rules unless Taiwan accepts "one China" principle. There is no incentive for China to bring it up because they are already attracting people and capital.

Q: What role does the Taiwan business community play in the debate?

Businesses are turning to China. With Taiwan in bad shape, businesses can set up political networks easily. They bet that reforms would make prospects even better. But they still may identify with Taiwan, though they do business in China.

Q: You say that conflict may increase. What kind of conflict do you envision?

If the DPP stays in government and buys weapons from the US, China will follow suit and tensions will increase. Maybe, that process will just continue. But China feels it cannot wait forever. In six years, if the situation has not changed, China may become more aggressive, believing that Taiwan is slipping away from the orbit of China. Many Taiwan elites are skeptical of China's reform, but some now believe China is really changing and will continue to progress. I think that in China the businesspeople will be allowed to join the Party. As a ruling party, even if it changes its name, it wants to stay in power. The challenge is: how to stay in power long enough to prove it is the best party to lead the country. So they studied Mexico and other cases of one-party rule to see what lessons could be learned. Their conclusion was that corruption and lack of institutional change are what caused collapse in those countries.

Q: What are the two nations' interests in unifying?

For China, it is mostly about security interests. For Taiwan, it has to do with the national pride of being part of a great civilization. Also Taiwan would have to spend less on weapons. Direct flights from Shanghai to Taipei would reduce costs and facilitate access to human resources. Institutional integration will not happen soon, however. First the constitutions must be changed, and then the local laws must be modified. They must make simple rules first, for example on military cooperation.

Q: In Taiwan's new textbooks, how do they describe the Chinese civilization?

They go back to aboriginal societies of Taiwan and start from there. There is little about ancient history.

Q: What is the US political debate regarding Taiwan?

My sense is that before 9/11, the thinking was that China is a rising power, so there would be a need for more military presence in the region. The Bush people wanted to do more than Bill Clinton did. A tough policy was coming, but Beijing did not react, to their credit. But 9/11 changed the thinking. The US has become allies with governments with which it was not previously allied. When President Bush goes to Beijing, we may see a new joint communique-a warm friendly one. China wants good relations with the US.

Q: Can you imagine a real opposition party in China?

I see no possibility of an opposition party in China. The leadership wants to reform the party first. The fact that the three represents is under debate shows that they want to clean up the party and elect the best guy. They know they must be more tolerant of religious diversity and practices. The suppression of the Falun Gong is now seen as too costly to continue. There are direct elections at the town-level. There is pressure building and a change in the constitution will be necessary. So the Communist Party wants to keep the process slow, so there is no challenge. The party faces a dilemma: it has to reform to show that it is meeting expectations, but it must keep reform slow so that there are no challenges to the party's rule.

Q: What is the role of Lee Teng-hui?

In his heart of hearts, Lee Teng-hui is a Taiwanese nationalist. He is able to compartmentalize his feelings and thoughts. He has been advising President Chen. President Chen, in turn, has been carrying on Mr. Lee's legacy more successfully because he is a lawyer.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.