In 1949, Taiwan became home to soldiers and citizens fleeing the communists in Mainland China. They took over the tropical island and with the protection of the United States built a prosperous democracy. But Taiwan's development has not been a source of pride for communist leaders in Beijing. They have long desired to reunify the island, which they regard as a renegade province, with the rest of China.
Over the past two decades, a series of vaguely worded agreements have preserved peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits. The understandings have allowed both China and Taiwan to develop economically, but they have left Taiwan increasingly isolated, recognized by only 26 nations and with membership in just a few international organizations.
Many Taiwan citizens are unhappy with the status quo and want Taiwan to be an independent country. In the year 2000, they elected Taiwan native and independence advocate Chen Sui-Bian as president. At first, Mr. Chen pledged to work with Mainland China, but he has grown increasingly frustrated with what he regards as China's bullying.
Mr. Chen has already staked out an "independent" platform for the March 2004 presidential elections. Earlier this year, he added the name "Taiwan" to Taiwanese passports, and he says that in a second term he will ask for a new constitution -- a move some analysts believe could open the way for a formal declaration of independence.
John Tkacik, an analyst of China Policy at Washington's Heritage Foundation, says the upcoming presidential elections are playing a role in the pronouncements, but there's also a deeper reason -- Taiwan may be running out of time: “There are two things going on. One is, of course, Taiwan's domestic politics. The other one is a very real sense among Taiwan's nativist leaders that Taiwan's international identity is eroding after a relentless onslaught of Chinese promotion of the ‘one-China principle.’ I feel a sense of frustration and alarm among Taiwan's leaders that if they don't speak out now, they might lose the identity of their country altogether.”
The opposition candidate for president is Lien Chan, Chairman of the Kuomintang Party, who held power in Taiwan until Mr. Chen's election in 2000. Mr. Lien says the current president is unnecessarily provoking Mainland China. Taiwan will be better off, he believes, if it stays with the status quo and concentrates on economic development: “We believe that the sovereign issue between the two sides is an important and critical issue, no doubt about that, but it is also our belief that things like that can be solved only in the future, and not even in the immediate future. In the meantime, we have to deal with so many important things that we can find a common ground with Mainland China.”
Some analysts say the stakes in Taiwan's upcoming presidential election have never been higher. David Dean is former Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the representative office of the United States in Taiwan:
“This is a really dangerous and defining time for everyone in Taiwan regardless of their political party or ethnic origin. China is growing in military, political and economic strength. So the critical question in my mind is: how will Taiwan manage its future relations with China? The real challenge is to find a way to advance its own interests while preserving its democracy and the freedom of action it now enjoys. I think everyone agrees that a military confrontation would be ruinous to all involved, but most of all to Taiwan itself.”
Taiwan independence supporters may get a boost from events in nearby Hong Kong. They have been closely watching developments in Hong Kong since 1997, when the former British colony was turned back over to China. Beijing agreed to let Hong Kong's citizens retain their economic rights and democratic privileges. But many Hong Kong citizens believe democracy is being eroded. In July, more than 200,000 people demonstrated against a controversial anti-subversion law, forcing the Mainland China-backed Hong Kong government to withdraw the bill from consideration. Some analysts say the protests discredited China's model for absorbing places like Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“The demonstrations in Hong Kong hit home in Taiwan because it indicated that the Hong Kong residents were very dissatisfied with the type of legislation which they felt was going to restrict their freedoms,” says David Dean. “So they demonstrated, and it proved to Taiwan that the one country - two systems proposal that China has is not suitable for Taiwan.”
Some analysts say Taiwan's dilemma is also a problem for the United States, which has long been ambivalent on the issue. While it continues to support Taiwan, Washington fears a declaration of independence could disrupt valuable trade flows in the region and possibly lead to war. At a time when U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration does not want to have to come to Taiwan's defense.
Rupert Hammond-Chambers is President of the U-S-Taiwan Business Council, a private organization which fosters business relations between the United States and Taiwan. He says a declaration of independence could destabilize the region: “It's not just a security matter. It's an economic matter, too. This isn't some corner of the globe where there is just a few dollars going back and forth. This is hundreds of billions of dollars worth of economic activity.”
But John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation says Taiwan shouldn't be bullied into submitting to China: “If mainland China threatens war against Taiwan -- we have the world's largest dictatorship threatening war against one of the world's most thriving and dynamic democracies. The fault should lie with Mainland China. The endgame should be that China backs off. If China truly wants Taiwan to be part of a broader Chinese nation, then it's up to mainland China to approach Taiwan with a deal that gives it something that it doesn't already have. What China is doing now is saying we are going to take away your sovereignty in return for not invading you. I don't think that's tenable.”
With five months remaining before Taiwan citizens elect their next president, the latest polls show President Chen trailing his rival by about five percent. But there's still a large block of undecided voters. That group may well determine if the status quo prevails or if Taiwan citizens will demand a New World view with Taiwan at the center as an independent country.