Sunday, February 17, 2008

The drubbing earlier this month of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic People’s Party in parliamentary elections has some American conservatives breathing a sigh of relief. The stalwart William Rusher represented many when he wrote in The Washington Times that the DPP’s loss to the opposition KMT was “a gratifying victory” for Taiwan and “well-wishers in the United States.”

To Mr. Rusher, DPP President Chen Shui Bian’s “policy of cautiously increasing Taiwan’s separation from China simply aggravates Beijing to no purpose, since Taiwan is for all practical purposes entirely independent of the People’s Republic of China and has our assurances.” That is news to many, not least the KMT, which has transformed itself into the party that will do almost anything to prevent Beijing from believing that.

Mr. Rusher is giving voice to what many conservatives want to believe, to wit: Nothing in China, Taiwan or the United States had changed since about 1982. It has, though. Notwithstanding recent elections’ results (and possibly a similar result in March’s presidential elections) there is little about the situation that warrants this distressingly outdated read of the situation.

In considering today’s circumstances, begin with the KMT Party itself. There is a conservative nostalgia about the KMT, which many see as the Kuomintang “Nationalist” party of Chiang Kai-shek, dedicated to leadership of a free China. Mr. Rushing’s recent piece is explicit on the point.

Alas, the KMT itself no longer shares that view: It is seen by many in Taiwan more as an “accommodationist” than a unification party. After eight years of churn, the Taiwan people may want more accommodation for now. But U.S. conservatives should be under no illusion about it: The KMT has undeniably evolved in the last two decades from the “free China” party to the “pro-China” party, inasmuch as it seeks to paper over the challenges posed by Beijing’s utterly uncompromising view of Taiwan’s status.

Conservatives should also take note that KMT leaders are focused on how best to manage Beijing’s desire that Taiwan at least be placed in the same or similar status as Hong Kong. The notorious “two systems, one country” policy toward Hong Kong has resulted in, among other things, indefinite postponement of democratic elections, an oozing corruption that correlates with lack of democratic accountability, an increasingly restive democracy movement, and other manifestations of what conservatives should recognize as the stirrings of the desire for self-expression and self-determination.

The Taiwan people also have evolved over the decades. There is little nostalgia for Chiang Kai-shek’s vision of a united “free China.” The mantra is “Taiwan for the Taiwanese,” which includes several large and influential minority and indigenous groups. Taiwan has a distinct culture, economy, language and traditions. While most in Taiwan are not hostile toward Beijing, there is no widespread desire to be united with it, much less exercise dominion over it. There is little affinity with China, beyond wanting to take advantage of the economic growth opportunities that come with being part of the region. Many see the recent election as a reflection of how the parties believe that is best achieved.

Another reason for American conservatives to pause before toasting the Taiwan election results is that the two-party system in Taiwan is fragile. Hailing the return of a party that ruled without interruption for 50 years should be done with eyes wide open. One-party rule is not a comforting thought wherever it occurs, and there are few countries in Asia that have a truly dynamic, multiparty system.

The DPP represents the first elective transition to another party in the island’s history. The Taiwan people had grown weary of the sclerosis, patronage and corruption that had come to characterize the nearly five-decade political status quo prior to former President Lee Teng Hui’s transformation of the political process. In his eight years, President Chen used much political capital to continue to modernize the political system, including pushing through revised political districts that DPP leaders knew would hurt them in the elections just completed.

In purely practical terms, a KMT victory has one other implication that should concern conservatives, who see Taiwan as the beneficiary of U.S. security guarantees. But those guarantees depend upon Taiwan holding up its end of the bargain by providing for its own defense. The KMT-controlled legislature has blocked the budgets necessary for a package of defense capabilities the United States approved early in the Bush administration because it is seen, like everything else, as “provocative” to China.

The view of some conservatives toward Taiwan today is not unlike how many viewed the inexorable breakup of the Balkan states after the Cold War. Many believed “we didn’t have a dog in that fight,” as former Secretary of State James Baker put it, and we did nothing to encourage the nascent movements toward independence for Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro or Kosovo, so as not to agitate the dying Soviet Union.

Today, the Soviet Union is gone and the Balkans is a region of free, independent, pro-U.S. states. The principal achievement of the DPP — despite its present woes — was to put that same dynamic into motion in Taiwan with respect to Beijing, where communism is not dead but it cannot survive without dramatic economic or political upheaval eventually.

The dynamic toward a free Taiwan — with or without a “free China” — is irreversible, and hopefully conservatives will lead the United States in learning how to accommodate and support it.

Therese Shaheen is president of USAsia International Inc. and was the Bush administration’s chairman of the American Institute of Taiwan 2002-2004.

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