Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Research Report

In Search of a Legacy:: Three Possible Paths for Taiwan’s Chen Shui-bian

Kay Webb Mayfield
Copyright Date: May. 1, 2005
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 33
  • Cite this Item

Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-3)

    For more than five years, observers in Taiwan, in the People’s Republic of China, and in the United States have kept an apprehensive eye on Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian. They are watching for signs that Chen is preparing to do what some see as inevitable, others as unthinkable: declare Taiwan’s independence as a means to “resolve” the impasse that has prevailed between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China for more than half a century.

    The problem is that such a declaration would do the opposite of resolving the problem. In all likelihood, it would provoke an armed response from...

  2. (pp. 3-4)

    At the beginning of Chen’s first term in 2000, the simplistic view of his primary objective was that he intended to declare Taiwan’s independence, and that indeed this was why Taiwan’s voters had favored him. The logical conclusion from this belief is that if Chen fails to achieve independence, he will fail to fulfill his mandate.

    Chen knew that his positions represented a stark contrast to those of the KMT, a party dominated by mainlanders and associated with the ultimate goal of reunifying the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Chen began his term with a more cautionary approach, calming...

  3. (pp. 5-7)

    The reactions from the PRC and the international community every time Chen has tried to promote the independence issue during his presidency have served to convince him that for now, declaring independence is a losing strategy that poses high risk and no reward. Polls consistently show that the majority of Taiwan’s people prefer the status quo, either temporarily or indefinitely, to the very real possibility that the PRC would use force in response to a declaration of Taiwan independence. Policy makers in the United States join in recognizing the awkward but workable realities of Taiwan’s current situation. In an April...

  4. (pp. 7-10)

    Chen’s second option is to protect the status quo against significant deterioration. This is a low risk, potentially high reward approach. Protecting the status quo not only keeps Washington happy and deflects any new anxieties in Beijing; it also meshes with the expressed preferences of the Taiwan electorate, as noted earlier. This path would cost Chen the opportunity to make a bold and memorable step, but would improve his party’s chances of holding onto power in 2008. The Greens, who do not yet have an anointed candidate for 2008, will have to moderate their positions even to achieve the kind...

  5. (pp. 10-14)

    The boldest move for Chen would come at the greatest personal cost, but the high risk would be offset by a high potential reward – real progress in reaching an ultimate resolution between Beijing and Taipei. Given the Beijing authorities’ personal antipathy toward Chen, he would more likely be the facilitator than the interlocutor for such a process, but could still claim intellectual authorship of possible breakthroughs between the two sides.

    Chen’s very unpalatability to the authorities in Beijing would in this instance represent a strength. In 1972, Richard Nixon’s record as a fervent anti-Communist gave him sufficient credibility with...

  6. (pp. 14-16)

    The concept of a “framework” could refer either to a process or to an end state. Kenneth Lieberthal addresses the first definition with a proposal that Taiwan and the PRC establish an “agreed framework” to guarantee peace and stability for 20 to 30 years before negotiating a final resolution. The PRC would make a commitment not to use force; Taiwan would make a commitment not to declare independence.36 McDevitt elaborates on the merits of this approach:

    If China renounced the use of force and Taiwan guaranteed it would not declare independence, the prospect of war would be greatly eased. To...

  7. (pp. 16-20)

    As much as Washington tries to stay neutral in the PRC-Taiwan dynamic, the gravitational pull is constant. Washington’s every pronouncement about developments on either side of the Taiwan Strait is subject to scrupulous examination and analysis, and such is the impact of the United States in the Taiwan Strait that Washington can seldom get by without demands for reactions and assessments.

    The deliberately ambiguous character of the Beijing-Washington-Taipei triangle impedes direct communication about whom Washington does or does not favor, or about what Washington will or will not do in some hypothetical situation. The peril may be more in what...

  8. (pp. 20-24)

    It might be helpful for Taiwan’s leaders to take a reality check, through official or unofficial channels, about the changing nature of Taiwan’s support in the United States. Although direct contacts with the Executive Branch are sharply constrained except by means of the unofficial American Institute in Taiwan and its Taiwan counterpart, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Relations Office, Taiwan representatives have in the past received sympathetic hearings and earned great support in the U.S. Congress.

    Furthermore, the indirect nature of contact with the Executive Branch hardly means Washington and Taipei ignore one another. A critic of Chen Shui-bian wrote...

  9. (pp. 24-25)

    Chen Shui-bian’s administration will occupy only a short period in the long chain of events leading from 1949 to the eventual date of resolution between Taipei and Beijing. Even so, he has the opportunity to make a significant impact in the time available to him. Although he is fond of invoking the hopes and aspirations of all 23 million people who live in Taiwan, the reality is that he governs a divided electorate whose view of Taiwan’s options is generally much more moderate than Chen’s own beliefs.

    The United States and other countries that stand to lose from a PRC-Taiwan...