TAIWAN: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Taiwan election presents new challenge for Beijing
, March 25, 2000
As News Weekly goes to press, the people of the Republic of China (Taiwan) are preparing to vote in Presidential Elections in which the communist regime in Beijing has found itself siding with its old enemies of the Kuomintang, which has run Taiwan since being driven into exile from the mainland in 1949, against the Democratic Progressive Party, which has supported a referendum on independence from the mainland.
To outsiders, the issue appears to be shadow-boxing, as Taiwan has had de facto independence from the People's Republic of China for over 50 years; but both the Kuomintang and the communists have insisted - for opposite reasons - that Taiwan is a province of China.
The independence of Taiwan has been guaranteed by the United States, which has naval bases in Taiwan, and in times of tension, has stationed units of the US Pacific Fleet in the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from the mainland.
The presence of the US naval trip wire, coupled with continuing strong political and diplomatic support from Washington, where there is a powerful pro-Taiwan lobby, has ensured Taiwan's independence, and provided a platform for its astonishing economic growth, which has made it a powerhouse of Asia.
For over 50 years, since the communist takeover of the mainland, relations between Taiwan and Beijing have been officially non-existent.
But with the mainland embracing the market economy, and Taiwanese capital providing a powerful engine for economic growth, unofficial ties grew steadily throughout the 1990s until last July, when Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, said officially that relations should be put on a "state by state" basis, meaning that Taiwan should declare itself independent.
Beijing reacted ferociously, cutting off all official ties with the government in Taipei, conducting war games on the mainland adjacent to Taiwan, and threatening to set a deadline for the "reunification" of Taiwan with the mainland, by military means if necessary.
The communists have given an unmistakable warning that if a future Taiwan government declares independence, Beijing will declare war, and even more ominously, stating in an official white paper last February, that Beijing would attack Taiwan territory, if the Taiwanese resist talks on unification with the mainland.
Some of Taiwan's territory, including the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, is within sight of the mainland, and during the 1950s and 1960s, was subjected to periodic artillery bombardment from the mainland.
While Beijing has shown undisguised hostility to Taiwan in the run-up to the Presidential elections, it has not gone as far as it did in 1996, during the last Taiwanese presidential elections.
At that time, in an effort to influence the outcome, China conducted a series of missile tests off Taiwan, to show that it had the power to bomb any part of Taiwan at will. However, the campaign backfired, increasing the vote for Lee Teng-hui, and catapulting him into the Presidency.
In the latest opinion polls conducted before the March 18 election, the three major candidates were running neck and neck. Each of the three main candidates were rated at having around 25 per cent of the votes, in the latest opinion polls.
For Beijing, the worry is that both the Democratic Progressive Party and the Independent, James Soong Chu-yu, who have both expressed opposition to Beijing's "one-China" policy, have together about 50 per cent of the vote.
The Kuomintang's candidate, Mr Lien Chan, has continued the party's traditional stance, and called for the resumption of talks with Beijing and the resumption of trade links.
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party has a long-standing policy which supports a referendum on declaring Taiwan independent. But in recent times, its candidate, Chen Shui-bian, has backed away from this position, stating, "If elected, I would never put the 'two-states' theory' in the constitution. Nor would I push for a referendum or announce independence, unless the Chinese communists attacked Taiwan."
The Independent candidate, James Soong Chu-yu, a former member of the Kuomintang, had previously condemned Beijing over its insistence on the "one China" doctrine, and publicly criticised China's White Paper last February, saying that Beijing "should not underestimate the determination of the Taiwanese people to pursue freedom and democracy."
He has called for the negotiation of a security treaty between Beijing and Taipei, though how this can be achieved in light of Beijing's declared intention to reunify Taiwan with the mainland is unclear.
In the meantime, Beijing's rhetoric has switched to the United States, which it blames for encouraging separatist forces in Taiwan.
Regardless of who is successful, the Presidential election is unlikely to affect the economic future of Taiwan, which weathered the 1997 Asian economic crisis remarkably well.