By Alan D. Romberg – “Playing politics” to win votes is pretty normal fare. In the case of Taiwan, however, “playing politics” can sometimes be akin to playing with fire. The decision of Taiwan’s two primary political parties to propose competing referenda on whether—and how—Taiwan should apply for membership in the United Nations has gone beyond typical election banter and roused the strong concern of its looming neighbor across the Strait, the People’s Republic of China. The practice of democracy has placed the Taiwan electorate in a difficult position: Vote “yea” on the referenda, reflecting known voter preferences, and face immediate consequences from Beijing and the rest of the international community; vote “nay” and remain in the same relatively safe diplomatic holding pattern but without the satisfaction of having acted to express the growing sense of “Taiwanese identity” or to protest exclusion from much of international life. Whatever they choose, there will be political consequences. It’s a dilemma very much worth examining.
The referendum proposed by the party in power, the DPP, asks voters to support Taiwan’s application to the UN as a new member using the name “Taiwan.” The referendum proposed by the opposition KMT asks voters to support the “return” of Taiwan to the world body under whatever name “would help realize the bid and assure Taiwan of dignity.” The KMT proposal, while not welcomed by the PRC or the United States, is tolerable to both in comparison with the potentially incendiary DPP version.
While the exercise of democracy is Taiwan’s greatest strength, it is not a license for irresponsibility. International repercussions resulting from passing the DPP referendum may not only do more to hurt Taiwan’s chances of gaining meaningful participation in the international arena than to help, it could also raise cross-Strait tensions to a new high. Taiwan’s leaders need to strike a balance between promoting their ideal political values and protecting their people’s vital interests. It is not an “either/or” choice.
The history of cross-Strait relations and basic geography must be taken into consideration when analyzing the Mainland’s reaction. One of the harsh realities that grow out of that history and that geography is that pressing for formal, independent sovereign status for Taiwan would be an invitation to tragedy. Some in Beijing understand that this referendum does not cross any “red lines” on independence, but rather is largely an election strategy geared toward winning votes. But Beijing faces a dilemma: the DPP does hope to push toward independence over time and hopes to use this referendum as a mandate to continue pressing in that direction. If the Mainland doesn’t show resolve now, when will it take a stand to stop the DPP’s efforts? It is clear that Chinese leaders desperately want to avoid letting things get to the point where they feel they have no option but to use overwhelming force to keep Taiwan part of “one China.” So they feel they must consider some action now to make their point, while not taking things so far that they get out of hand and generate a confrontation with the United States, or even war.
Despite the presumed domestic political benefit, it is baffling why Taiwan would so blatantly disregard the concerns of the international community in what will surely be a losing cause in the end. There are no benefits in arousing the suspicion and anger of any number of countries who would prefer simply to deal pragmatically with both parties but are being forced to take sides when the issue arises, as happened at the WHO last spring and at the UN in September. Most important of all, Taiwan’s recent relationship with its key benefactor, the United States, has been marked by increased tension over this matter.
In fact, despite urging by the politicians, the people of Taiwan may choose not to incur the potential cost of persisting with the DPP referendum. Recent polls show growing reticence about pushing it through to the end.
In any event, this issue highlights that, with both political parties in Taiwan competing for the allegiance of the voters in an era of heightened “identity politics,” maintaining the balance between political values and other national interests will be increasingly difficult. These concerns take us well beyond the matter of referenda themselves. But these roiling issues, which lie beneath the daily tussle over one particular document, are worth pondering. They exist just below the surface, threatening to bubble to the top at any time, challenging the peaceful management of cross-Strait relations and constructive ties of both sides with the United States. This is relevant not only to the next few months, which are the last few months of the Chen Shui-bian administration. It will carry through to May 2008, when a new government will take office in Taipei. We can hope that at that time we may, in fact, see a new beginning.
photo credit: David Reid (http://flickr.com/photos/davidonformosa/1390977990/)