Saturday, September 24, 2005

International Crisis Group and Taiwan-China Situation

The International Crisis Group has a new paper out on the Taiwan Straits situation. Their sources are largely Washington-based, with the exception of a few academics. The paper notes:

Election politics, personal conviction, and the drive for a political legacy were key motives prompting President Chen and his government to break with earlier moderation on cross-strait issues and, between late 2003 and late 2004, pursue pro-independence initiatives that neither Beijing's warnings of war and diplomatic pressure nor positive trade and economic relations appeared able to halt. Chen's political opponents were put on the defensive, and business people hung back despite heavy investments in China. Concerned for cross-strait stability, however, the U.S. sought to rein in Chen, issuing repeated public statements and private official comments opposed to the pro-independence initiatives.

Washington's interventions were widely credited for moderating Taiwan government policy and influencing popular opinion in the lead-up to the December 2004 legislative elections that resulted in a significant setback for President Chen and his administration. Mutually encouraged, Taiwan political opposition leaders and the Chinese leadership held meetings in Beijing in April and May 2005. The improved atmospherics that resulted from those talks and anticipated benefits from proposed new trade and exchanges offset the negative fallout from passage in March of an anti-secession law that formalised China's promise to use force against any attempt by Taiwan to separate permanently.

I love the way these analyses always present the pro-democracy, pro-independence crowd as somehow crazed, while the corrupt old authoritarians in leagure with Beijing are "rational." Apparently it is irrational to prefer life in an autonomous democratic state, and rational to desire to live under a faraway authoritarian government. I look forward to the day when analyses of Taiwan policy mature out of this construction of DPP behavior.

The report is available in both .DOC and .PDF formats.

One thing I'd like to point out: the report repeatedly credits Washington with influencing local politics (recall the commentary from Nat Bellocchi I referenced earlier that says Washington has little understanding of such). For example:

KMT and other pan blue arguments that Chen's stance risked Chinese military attack were relatively ineffective in the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004, when the electorate apparently discounted the possibility given Beijing's internal and international priorities and strong U.S. military support for Taiwan. However, voters seemed to recalculate in December 2004, presumably in response to the repeated U.S. interventions against the pro-independence agenda.

The idea that voters in Taiwan noticed anything that Washington did reflects Inside-the-Beltway fantasies about its influence on the world. Many times prior to the election I talked with voters, and no one ever mentioned Washington and its plans. Rather, the focus was generally the economy, public order, like or dislike for particular candidates, and other issues of interest locally. All politics is local, and Taiwan is the poster boy for that dictum. The DPP lost because it lacks the well-developed networks of organized crime, local political bosses, local business, local government finance, and construction companies that the KMT has carefully fostered over the years. It will be at least a decade before the DPP begins to make real inroads into this structural advantage of the KMT.

One must also ask what Washington is thinking. The election of 2004 saw an increase in pro-independence politicking and other moves, and the DPP defeated a coalition that had won more than 60% of the votes previously and was supported by both Washington and Beijing. The people that run elections for the DPP are not idiots and know perfectly well where the line should be drawn. It was not Washington that put a stop to the mad DPP's irrational independence moves -- the DPP brain trust already knows just how far it can go. Rather, it was the DPP that used Washington as the an excuse for setting a limit on its movement toward independence, thus keeping the "independence now" crowd in check, as well as to assure China that Taiwan wasn't actually going to assert the democratic rights Washington pays lip service to. Essentially, the DPP used Washington to manage China. In other words, Chen got another four years, and Washington got to pat itself on the back. Who is manipulating whom? I submit that in this situation, Washington is the tail that thinks it's the dog.....


Jason said...

An excellent observation.

As documents like the leaked Nelson Report earlier this year shows, many East Asian experts have quit in disgust since 2000 since the Bush administration marginalized their role in policymaking and now move everything through the office of the vice president and his closed circle of advisors.

Washington has always been a semi-sealed bell jar of sorts, only wanting to only hear what's convenient for it at the time. The Bush administration merely represents a perfection of this practice.

To add to your point that the DPP is made up largely of old activists, you can see this in the way they have instinctively reacted to past situations by upping the ante in an attempt to catch opponents off-balance (take last year's referendum as an example).

I think the DPP has learned that this gives it a less than favorable image in DC, though, and has since worked harder to present a more "dressed down" image (it's "cool mofo" reaction to the anti-secession law did a lot to improve its credibility here).

Michael Turton said...

I wonder if the "DPP is crazed" image actually helps them, you know, like Nixon's old strategy against Vietnam, only in reverse -- "if we don't make some room for their fruitcake independence stuff, they might actually declare indepedence and provoke a war!"