Paris, Tuesday, July 20, 1999

The Logic of Taiwan Points Toward Independence


By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune


LONDON - The fact that President Lee Teng-hui has stirred up tension in the Taiwan Straits seems inexplicable and even foolish to China or the United States, but it is logical if seen in terms of domestic Taiwan politics.

The risk is that unless the politics of a democratic Taiwan are understood and accommodated, at least by fellow democrats in the West, a major crisis in 1999-2000 will be unavoidable.

Mr. Lee's statement that China-Taiwan negotiations should be conducted between two states is the result of a detailed review of policy designed to define the meaning of a new Taiwanese identity. It is not the result of a search for a new formula for unification. It is a calculated step toward self-determination and eventual independence.

The new policy should be recognizable to democrats around the world. It is what happens when a country grows rich and develops a middle class and a civil society that demands democratic accountability. These powerful social forces inevitably lead to domestic political struggle.

Mr. Lee has ridden the tiger of reform, giving confidence to Taiwanese in their new identity, especially when, in the 1996 crisis, China tried to scare Taiwan into abandoning it. In the run-up to the presidential election in 2000 (when Mr. Lee cannot stand again), the battle has been joined for the mantle of leadership of the New Taiwan.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lee, he has chosen a lackluster successor, Vice President Lien Chan. Sensing weakness, Mr. Lien's rival in the ruling Kuomintang, James Soong, a former governor of Taiwan, has decided to break away and stand as an independent. Mr. Soong is popular on domestic issues but stands for much closer relations with China and an abandonment of the concept of the New Taiwan.

Opinion polls show him leading Mr. Lien. And so President Lee is stepping into the campaign, apparently trying to smoke out Mr. Soong's unpopular tendency to bend to China's will.

Mr. Lee's domestic political logic is impeccable but dangerous. Mr. Lien is so unpopular that he is running third behind Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the formally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. In response to Mr. Lee's articulation of the new Taiwanese identity, the DPP has softened its commitment to immediate and formal independence and thus in many respects represents Mr. Lee's best hope to defeat Mr. Soong.

The risk of even an implicit policy of support for the DPP candidate is that China will treat a DPP victory as a declaration of Taiwanese independence and call up the invasion troops.

In fact, Mr. Lee may well be counting on China to go ballistic about his declaration of state-to-state relations precisely in order to unmask Mr. Soong as a poor defender of the rights of a New Taiwan.

Given China's hysterical reaction to the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the increasingly shrill level of Chinese nationalist rhetoric, it may seem to Mr. Lee that China can be counted upon to overreact and help defeat Mr. Soong.

No Chinese leader, especially at a time of domestic weakness, will want to be seen to be soft on Taiwan. But a smart and subtle China would virtually have to pretend that Taiwan does not exist in the run-up to the presidential election next March, or risk repeating the error of 1996 and helping elect a president committed to a New Taiwan.

A clever China would simply let the angst of the Taiwanese middle class about losing its savings on a falling stock market lead to reluctant support for Mr. Soong. Taiwanese clearly lack the confidence of Serbs who withstood months of very real NATO bombing.

But even if Mr. Soong should win in 2000, it is hard to believe that he could arrest the powerful domestic forces that are taking Taiwan to the brink of independence. His election would merely polarize Taiwanese society and create the risks associated with a divided democracy.

Of course, if Chen Shui-bian should win, the battle over Taiwan's future would quickly grow acute.

In any case, sooner or later China, the United States and the wider world will have to come to terms with the powerful logic of a democratic Taiwan. As 21 million people grope toward self-determination, democrats everywhere will have to ask themselves whether they want an authoritarian China telling them how to think about Taiwanese democracy.

The writer, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.