Beijing has scored a remarkable propaganda triumph with
the visit to China by Lien Chan, a former vice president of Taiwan
and head of the opposition Kuomintang. It was especially impressive
given the sour Taiwanese response to China's recent enactment of an
anti-secession law, and the solidarity that Japan and the United
States have been showing on the question of Taiwan's strategic
importance. Lien has been given the kind of high-profile reception,
including a meeting with President Hu Jintao, that is normally
accorded to a head of state.
Taiwan's president, Chen
Shui-bian, now finds himself on the defensive and is having to use
the other opposition leader, James Soong, the mainland-born
Kuomintang renegade who now heads his own People First Party, to
carry a message to China this week.
Not too much should be
read into all this, however. Cross-strait relations have had several
peaks and troughs over the past 15 years without the fundamental
issues changing significantly. Even China's economic advance and the
depth of cross-strait business links have done little to bridge the
political divide. The outlook is seldom as dangerous and seldom as
hopeful as the headlines of the day suggest.
In this case, too, one
ingredient has generally passed without notice in the outside world.
On July 16 the Kuomintang will hold an election for its
chairmanship. Lien had been expected not to run, having suffered two
defeats in his bid for president, to make way for a younger man to
carry the Kuomintang flag in the next election, scheduled for 2008.
It was to have been a contest between the popular mayor of Taipei,
Ma Ying-jeou, and the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Wang
Jin-pyng. But there are suggestions that Lien will use his newly
bolstered profile in an attempt to stay on. Wang has indicated he
would support Lien if Lien so decides.
Even if that proves not
to be the case, Lien seems to have been wanting to make a statement
on his commitment to the One China principle before stepping down as
a Kuomintang chief. There is a personal element to this - Lien made
an emotional return to his birthplace, Xian - but it is also a
reflection of the strength of pro-unification sentiments within the
Kuomintang, which shares with the Communists respect for the
Kuomintang's founder, Sun Yat-sen, and resentment at Japan's wartime
Most people in Taiwan,
however, whatever their politics, do not have such emotional and
kinship ties with the mainland. Opinion polls suggest that a small
majority was in favor of Lien's visit. But it may also have
increased antagonism between pro- and anti-unification forces. For
many in the governing Democratic Progressive Party, Lien's visit
showed that his heart lies with China, not with Taiwan. By contrast,
Chen Shui-bian's and former President Lee Teng-hui's emotional
commitment to Taiwan's identity sometimes takes precedence over
What Taiwanese voters
will make of all this remains to be seen. Lien's visit has raised
the emotional level at both political extremes, but the battle for
votes is at the center. In so far as cross-strait questions
influence elections, the issue is which party can best preserve the
status quo, asserting Taiwan's de facto independence and liberal,
democratic political system without threatening to cause war,
alienating the United States or endangering commercial links with
Although he singularly
failed to mention such issues as military threats against Taiwan and
the mainland's oppression of dissidents, in practical terms Lien
gave away nothing - he was in no position to negotiate anything and
the "peace" agreed with his hosts is so vague as to be meaningless.
The pivot point for cross-strait relations remains the definition of
Beijing maintains that
there was a consensus in 1992 to support the principle of One China.
Even many in the nominally pro-independence Democratic Progressive
Party will go along with some interpretations of that phrase. But
Beijing continues to insist that One China means one state, the
People's Republic of China, rather than (as with the two Koreas) a
single nation temporarily divided into two states.
Until Beijing shifts its
interpretation of One China or Taiwan loses its implicit U.S./Japan
security umbrella, cross-strait political relations will probably
continue to go round in rhetorical circles.