Accessibility links

China: All Eyes On Beijing After Taiwan Election

  • Kitty McKinsey

The election of the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan on Saturday has analysts watching closely for Beijing's reaction. Before the election, China was threatening military action if Taiwan moved toward independence. RFE/RL's Kitty McKinsey talks with China analysts, who say it is in the interest of both Taipei and Beijing to proceed with caution.

Honolulu, United States; 20 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Taiwan's new president-elect, Chen Shui-bian, belongs to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. His election on Saturday smashed the Kuomintang, or Nationalist, party's 50-year stranglehold on power in Taiwan.

Our correspondent spoke with Daniel Kwok, a leading U.S. historian of China (professor emeritus of history at the University of Hawaii). Kwok says this first transition of power from one party to another in Taiwan is of major importance.

"The historic significance is huge...China's entire 20th century was spent in revolutions and proclamations for democracy and so on. But this is really the very first time when a party such as the KMT, the Nationalist party -- which, by the way, was modeled on the Communist Party in 1923 and onwards -- such a party was displaced peacefully by the democratic process. So it is truly historic. And a dictatorial party which was itself changing in the last 10 years, finally replaced by another party in the so-called multiparty polity."

Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province, advocating a "one China, two governments" policy. Chen said on Monday that he is prepared to discuss the "One China" issue with mainland China as long as Taipei is treated as an equal.

Our correspondent asked Kwok about Beijing's reaction to Chen's election.

"I cannot predict Beijing that well. Nobody can. But I hope that Beijing would take a deep breath. When 83 percent voted, and [Chen] has 39 percent, that's significant. As an historian I think this is significant in the sense that democracy can work on Chinese soil."

During the run-up to the election, Beijing had been bellicose in its disapproval of Chen, who first entered politics as an advocate of Taiwanese independence. Beijing threatened military action if Taiwan took steps toward independence.

Eric Harwit is a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He says Beijing always reacts that way when Taiwan has an election.

"Each time that Taiwan has had the three presidential elections, the tensions have risen. I don't know whether the tension was any higher this time than it was four years ago. In fact, I would say probably four years ago, it was even higher because of the actual shooting of missiles in the Taiwan Strait. So this year the mainland Chinese rhetoric was a bit higher, but I don't think they took any actions that indicated a war is imminent."

Harwit said the new president is likely to continue a policy that is broadly similar to that of his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui of the Kuomintang party.

"I think he (Chen) will continue the status quo. I think that is what the Taiwanese have wanted all along. Let's put it this way: the Taiwanese already have independence. They have been de facto independent for 50 years...And they don't mind saying, 'yes, we are still the Republic of China, yes we still eventually want to have unification with the Chinese,' and so they go about this shadow-play of negotiating with the mainland Chinese. I think Chen Shui-bian, he doesn't really have much choice. Why should he stand there and say "we are an independent nation" when they already are an independent nation? As long as he doesn't say it, there is no problem."

Both Chinas, Harwit says, have economic incentives to maintain good relations. Taiwan has invested an estimated $30 billion to $40 billion in China. Harwit:

"That's the main benefit that the Chinese get out of the status-quo relationship with Taiwan. They get the investment dollars, they get the technology, they get the trade. China is now the second-largest target for Taiwan exports, and the United States is first. If China joins the World Trade Organization then that will only increase the economic cooperation between Taiwan and China. So, of course, China has a lot to lose if they take any military action against Taiwan, and this, as you say, tens of billions of dollars that Taiwan has invested in China is something the Chinese don't want to jeopardize."

U.S. officials say the United States will urge both Beijing and Taipei to avoid hasty reactions and to use moderate rhetoric.