The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
Developments in East Asia may appear sluggish compared to the momentous changes in Europe and the Soviet Union. The Cold War lines that divide both China and Korea remain firmly in place, although rendered more permeable by flexible policies. East Asia's three communist countries-mainland China, North Korea and Vietnam-are still ruled by first-generation revolutionary leaders. In stark contrast to the peaceful unification of Germany, Vietnam was unified by a vast communist army. And mainland China (the People's Republic of China) is soon to extend its domination to Hong Kong-the citadel of capitalism in the East. Moreover the string of arms control measures achieved in the West has not found a counterpart in East Asia. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of accommodation, sweeping as it is, has only begun to thaw the chilly relations between the Soviet Union and Japan. For different reasons the major powers in this area appear unwilling or unable to change the current situation.
Yet beneath the surface important currents of change are discernible. First, East Asia ranks as the fastest growing area of the world in terms of economic output. Japan's gross national product, 50 years after Pearl Harbor, is double that of Germany. Japan is now the world's largest creditor, while its victorious World War II adversary, the United States, has slipped into being the world's largest debtor. Other East Asian economies are also doing well, with average growth rates that far outstrip those of the European Community.
Second, the process of democratization is moving apace in the Republic of China (R.O.C.) on Taiwan, the Republic of Korea and the Philippines. The light of democracy that flickered to life in 1989 on the Chinese mainland has only been dimmed, not extinguished. In fact the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe may portend similar developments in mainland China after the passing of its first-generation leaders.
Finally, a spirit of reconciliation seems to be prevailing in East Asia as well. The normalization of relations between mainland China and the Soviet Union and also Vietnam, as well as the establishment of diplomatic ties between Moscow and Seoul and expanding people-to-people interchanges between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits are but a few examples. In short, while the Cold War structure remains largely intact in East Asia, global trends toward democratization, development and détente have deeply penetrated the area, and there are grounds for optimism about the future.
Since its withdrawal from the United Nations in 1971, the R.O.C. has aimed to maintain and expand its substantive relations with other countries. It has also sought to upgrade its economic structure and make itself more democratic. Today it is the fifteenth largest trading nation in the world, with a GNP more than one-third that of mainland China. The R.O.C. is widely recognized as having emerged from an era of isolation and irrelevance to become a potentially valuable contributor to the emerging new world order. By furthering trends toward democratization, development, international integration and détente, Taiwan may play an important role in promoting stability and prosperity in East Asia. In fact Taiwan's experience may someday be especially relevant to the future of a unified and democratic China.
The 1911 revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen brought the Ching dynasty to an end, but failed to create a suitable environment for economic and political development. The following four decades were marked by fierce fighting among rival warlords, a communist insurgency and a Japanese invasion that eventually helped lead to the communist conquest of the mainland.
Since 1949 Taiwan has made slow progress toward democratization, the timing and direction of which was narrowly controlled by the government, taking into account the threat from mainland China and Taiwan's own socioeconomic development. By the mid-1980s Taiwan and Singapore had become the only non-oil exporting countries in the world with per capita incomes of at least $5,000 a year that did not have fully competitive democratic systems. But today Taiwan has finally developed the proper economic and social base for successful democracy.
An important step toward Taiwan's political reform came in 1986, when opposition forces formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), defying a government ban on new political parties. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) not only refrained from taking action against the opposition but made a series of moves in the following years that decidedly liberalized and democratized the nature of Taiwan's political system. The liberalization measures adopted by the KMT included replacing martial law with a new national security law, lifting press restrictions, revamping the judiciary and promulgating laws on assembly, demonstration and civil organization. The democratization measures legalized opposition parties, redefined the rules for political participation-such as the electoral law-and include the ongoing reform of the legislature (the Legislative Yuan), the electoral college (the National Assembly) and the R.O.C. constitution.
This process of democratization, begun by President Chiang Ching-kuo before his death in January 1988, was given further impetus by his successor, Dr. Lee Teng-hui. At his inauguration in May 1990, President Lee set a two-year timetable to complete the country's democratic transformation, including major structural and procedural reforms. A National Affairs Conference was convened in June 1990 with delegates drawn from all major political and social forces. After much public debate the NAC decided to end Taiwan's "mobilization period," begun in 1949, which had allowed the government extraordinary national security powers.
A declaration to this effect, made by President Lee in May 1991, also included recognition that a "political entity" in Peking controls the mainland area. On the recommendation of the NAC the "temporary provisions" appended in May 1949 to the 1947 constitution, giving the government sweeping powers to deal with external and internal threats, were abrogated in early 1991. By the end of the year all the senior members of the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly elected on the mainland prior to 1949, and who have never been subject to reelection, will have retired. A new National Assembly composed exclusively of representatives elected in Taiwan will then undertake the final phase of democratic reform: revision of the R.O.C. constitution. Upon its completion in mid-1992, and after Legislative Yuan elections scheduled for the end of that same year, the R.O.C. will have become by any standard a full-fledged democracy.
The R.O.C.'s democratization process is unique. It has not been initiated or monitored by external forces, as it was in Japan and West Germany. Nor was it undertaken after political or social upheavals, as in Greece or Argentina and lately in the Soviet Union. Rather it has evolved peacefully within the country and is mainly the result of prosperity. Tensions and divergent views exist, to be sure. For example, although both sides of the Taiwan Straits maintain that Taiwan has been, legally and historically, an integral part of China, the Democratic Progressive Party insists that Taiwan is a sovereign, independent entity. The DPP's position is contrary to the R.O.C. government's claim to represent all of China. Furthermore the DPP's foreign-policy platform holds that Taiwan should develop its own international relations, including membership in the United Nations and all other international organizations, on the basis of independent sovereignty and under the name "Taiwan." The R.O.C. government, however, maintains that "Taiwan," as a geographical area, is merely an island province of the R.O.C.
These kinds of differences are inevitable in an open society. But the point is that the government of the R.O.C. itself has largely set the timing for its own democratization; the clock cannot and will not be turned back. It is worth noting that the R.O.C. is the first Chinese-dominated society to practice pluralistic party politics. In that sense what we have been witnessing is truly revolutionary. It realizes the dreams of many of our founding fathers-a dream for which many have sacrificed their lives. And yet R.O.C. prosperity and democratization have been achieved without bloodshed and without overturning the existing socioeconomic order.
These changes, however, do not come without a price. They have unleashed societal forces that present new challenges to the government, which still needs to coordinate reforms in other areas, such as economic policy, mainland policy and foreign affairs. As various societal interest groups stake their claims on public policymaking, the quality of government will increasingly have to rise to meet the needs of its various constituents.
Despite Taiwan's economic miracle, rapid social change and political liberalization, the R.O.C. has an artificially low international status and remains an outsider to the emerging international order. Between the urgent necessity for greater integration into the international community and an underlying desire not to forsake the future reunification of China, the R.O.C. has adopted a flexible approach to foreign relations, commonly called "pragmatic diplomacy."
Pragmatic diplomacy did not emerge overnight. The R.O.C.'s diplomatic fortunes suffered their first major setback in 1971, when its seat in the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council were taken by mainland China. Its diplomacy reached its lowest point in 1979, when the United States switched diplomatic recognition to Peking. At that time the R.O.C. maintained formal diplomatic relations with only 21 countries and had only 60 offices abroad, and it feared that other nations would follow Washington's lead. Taiwan suffered yet another blow in 1982 with the "August 17 Communiqué," signed by Washington and Peking, which committed the United States to reducing the quantity and quality of arms sold to Taiwan.
But Taipei learned much from these reversals. A spirit of pragmatism emerged among its foreign-policy makers as well as the nation's public. Amid increasingly strident popular calls for change, the government chose on several occasions to adopt a more flexible approach. For instance, the R.O.C. agreed to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics under the title "Chinese Taipei," not "Republic of China," as in previous games. It protested Peking's entry in 1986 into the Asian Development Bank (ADB), but refrained from withdrawing itself.
Under President Lee the R.O.C.'s search for international visibility and participation became more vigorous. In April 1988 an official delegation was sent to Manila to attend the annual ADB meeting under the name "Taipei, China." This was the first time that the R.O.C. and mainland China had both attended a meeting of an international governmental organization. In his opening address to the KMT's Thirteenth Party Congress in July 1988, President Lee urged the party to "strive with greater determination, pragmatism, flexibility and vision in order to develop a foreign policy based primarily on substantive relations," a passage incorporated into the party's new platform.
In March 1989 President Lee led an official delegation on a highly successful visit to Singapore, where he was referred to in the local press as "the President from Taiwan." That May the R.O.C. made an even more dramatic decision to dispatch its finance minister, Dr. Shirley Kuo, to the annual ADB meeting, this time in Peking. President Lee explained the decision in a June 3, 1989, speech to the Second Plenum of the KMT's Thirteenth Central Committee: "The ultimate goal of the foreign policy of the R.O.C. is to safeguard the integrity of the nation's sovereignty. We should have the courage to face the reality that we are unable for the time being to exercise effective jurisdiction on the mainland. Only in that way will we not inflate ourselves and entrap ourselves, and be able to come up with pragmatic plans appropriate to the changing times and environment."
In 1988 Taipei established an International Economic Cooperation and Development Fund and appropriated $1.2 billion for economic aid to Third World countries. This new foreign aid program, plus the 43 teams of technical experts already working in 31 countries, places the R.O.C. firmly in the ranks of significant aid-providing nations. Moreover 1989 saw the establishment of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange with an endowment of over $100 million. A fund for International Disaster Relief also provided tens of millions of dollars to the Philippines, the Kurdish refugees and others who suffered during the Gulf War.
These and other efforts resulted in a sharp increase in the R.O.C.'s international ties. As of 1991 the R.O.C. has formal diplomatic relations with 29 countries and maintains 79 representative offices in 51 countries with which it has no diplomatic relations. These offices, some of which bear the Republic of China's official name, facilitate bilateral cooperation in areas such as trade, culture, technology and environmental protection. The R.O.C. is also a formal participant in the newly formed ministerial-level organization, the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation, and has been active in regional groupings such as the Pacific Basin Economic Cooperation and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council. It also stands ready to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as the representative government of the "customs territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu," not the whole of China.
While pragmatic diplomacy enjoys wide support at home-so much so that the country's foreign relations were not an issue during the hotly contested 1989 election campaign-it has invited relentless criticism from mainland China. Characterizing it as a plot to create "one China, one Taiwan," or "two Chinas," Peking has taken a number of steps to forestall the R.O.C.'s international integration. Those countries that have shown interest in establishing air links with Taipei, receiving or sending official delegations, setting up offices in Taiwan or simply striking major business deals are warned of "deleterious consequences." In 1991 alone twenty countries, including Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Malaysia and the Soviet Union, have been forced to reaffirm that "the P.R.C. is the sole legitimate government of China, and Taiwan is part of China."
This has not deterred the R.O.C. from its charted course. Pragmatic diplomacy is part and parcel of the R.O.C.'s democratic transformation, reflecting the nation's collective yearning for change. Just as the domestic political process is being democratized and its economy opened to the world, so its foreign relations must become more flexible as well.
Taiwan is directly susceptible to winds of change from the Chinese mainland. In recent years the relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits has undergone a sea-change. From 1949 to 1979 Taiwan was constantly threatened by direct military invasion. The shelling of Kinmen and Matsu in 1958, which almost brought the two superpowers into confrontation, was a dangerous example.
But beginning in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping led the Peking leadership to embark on its "four modernizations" program, mainland China's need to maintain a peaceful image eased its hard-line policy. The new goal was not to coerce but to cajole Taipei back into the fold with a variety of devices, such as the "one country, two systems" formula advanced by Deng in 1984. According to this formula, Taiwan would be downgraded to a "highly autonomous region," thus conceding the right to conduct its own foreign relations and national defense. The R.O.C. resisted by adopting its "three nos" stance toward mainland China: no contact, no compromise, no negotiations.
This deadlock was broken in November 1987 when President Chiang Ching-kuo decided to allow people on Taiwan to visit family members on the mainland. Subsequently, long-standing bans on indirect trade and investment, academic, sports and cultural exchanges, tourist visits and direct mail and telephone links were lifted in rapid succession. This opened the floodgates to people-to-people exchanges between the two sides of the straits, unprecedented at any period of Chinese history. In the early part of this year alone, an estimated two million people from Taiwan visited the mainland, more than 28 million letters were sent in both directions-an average of 40,000 per day-and telephone, fax and telex exchanges numbered five million. Moreover, by conservative estimates, indirect trade reached $4.04 billion in 1990 and investment topped $2 billion.
In November 1990 a cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Commission was established. At the same time the R.O.C. created the Straits Exchange Foundation, an organization funded primarily by private money. The SEF serves as an intermediary between the peoples of Taiwan and the mainland on an entire range of functional issues. If necessary the SEF may engage mainland representatives in non-political negotiations. Thus far SEF personnel have visited the mainland on three occasions and received one Red Cross delegation from mainland China-events all highly publicized by the R.O.C. press. The two sides have agreed on procedures for the repatriation of criminals and have indicated an interest in the joint prevention of crimes committed on the high seas. It is hoped, at least by the R.O.C., that through these exchanges "peace by pieces" may be achieved.
A National Unification Council was set up in October 1990 with President Lee as its chairman. To further clarify the R.O.C.'s stance on mainland-Taiwan relations, new Guidelines for National Reunification were proposed by this council and accepted by the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) in March 1991. The guidelines state: "After an appropriate period of forthright exchange, cooperation and consultation conducted under the principles of reason, peace, equity and reciprocity, the two sides of the Taiwan Straits should foster a consensus on democracy, freedom and equal prosperity, and together build anew a single unified China."
The guidelines envision unification after three consecutive phases. For the immediate future is a phase of exchanges and reciprocity, during which the two sides are to carry out political and economic reforms at home and "set up an order for exchanges across the straits . . . [to] solve all disputes through peaceful means and furthermore respect, not reject, the other in the international community," and "not deny the other's existence as a political entity."
In the medium term a phase of mutual trust and cooperation is envisioned, in which "official communications channels should be established on an equal footing," direct trade and other links should be allowed, and "both sides should jointly develop the southeast coastal areas of the mainland." Both sides should also "assist each other in taking part in international organizations and activities" and promote an exchange of visits by high-ranking officials to create favorable conditions for consultation.
In the final phase both sides may jointly discuss the grand task of unification and map out a constitutional system built on the principles of democracy, economic freedom, social justice and nationalization of the armed forces. In today's Taiwan context "nationalization" means enhancement of the non-partisanship of the armed forces.
Public opinion polls show a hard core of "unification" supporters in Taiwan, amounting to about 10 percent of the population. There is also a group of "independence" advocates whose strength ranges between 5 and 12 percent of the population. In between is a silent majority whose views tend toward the R.O.C. government's long-standing position of "one China, but not now" and its emphasis on phased advances toward the goal of unification. However, as in other democracies, the minority may be vocal and aggressive, and their voices are often amplified through the democratic process, thus complicating the formulation of mainland policy. While the push and pull involved in formulating the R.O.C.'s mainland policy may seem natural to those familiar with Taiwan's increasingly democratic political system, it at times appears inscrutable to the aged leaders in Peking.
Given the widening gap-politically, socially and psychologically-between the two sides of the straits, the danger for the R.O.C. appears to stem not so much from Peking's capricious and expansionist tendencies as from its unwillingness or inability to comprehend the changes in the R.O.C. The mainland's aged leaders seem all too ready to take extreme positions by drawing parallels between the R.O.C.'s democratization and what is derisively called "Taiwanization," and between "pragmatic diplomacy" and "two Chinas." At the heart of these misperceptions is Peking's stereotype of Taiwan as a small island province located on the Chinese periphery and ruled by mainland China's defeated civil war enemies. From this vantage point there is no way Peking can treat Taipei as an equal. The same attitude seems to have led the Peking leadership to deny, or at least suppress, the fact that the R.O.C. has come far in the last four decades in overcoming age-old feudalism, poverty and the last vestiges of imperialism. One hopes that in time the Peking leadership will realize that the R.O.C., as a dynamic polity and vibrant economy with ideals, hopes and fears of its own, likewise cannot agree to hold political negotiations with Peking from an unequal position and while mainland China continues to rattle its saber.
For too long too many foreign observers have cast the R.O.C. in a unidimensional mold. For those who hailed the R.O.C. as a bulwark of anticommunism, it was to be supported at any price. For those who favored better relations with mainland China, Taiwan was viewed as a "problem" or an "obstacle" to China's unification. When many in the United States were obsessed with the deteriorating bilateral trade situation, Taiwan even became a "threat" to be curbed by protectionist legislation.
Yet the Republic of China is rapidly coming of age. It is evolving into something that fits none of the old stereotypes. Along with the old stereotypes, we must throw out the old prism through which events on the island were once perceived. No analysis of issues relating to China is complete if it fails to take into account the views, ideals, aspirations and fears of the people of Taiwan.
Just as Taiwan is a part of China, so is the mainland. Neither should seek to lord it over the other or to claim superiority by dint of size, population or past performance. Both should instead recognize the fact that two different systems exist in these separate parts of China. While unification is the ultimate goal of Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, it should not be pursued simply for its own sake. As the breakup of the Soviet Union has shown, a forced union will ultimately end in divorce. The primary task for both governments in the next few years is therefore not to accelerate artificially the wheels of history, but to carry out reforms at home in order to narrow the political and economic gaps between the two sides. Most important, the unification process should be peaceful and voluntary, so that it will neither constitute an imposition by one side on the other nor cause undue concern among China's neighbors.
As the world celebrates the end of the Cold War, the people of the Republic of China are looking forward to making greater contributions to a new world order. Taiwan's experience shows that the Chinese people, like any other people, are fully capable of practicing democracy, promoting rapid economic growth with equitable income distribution and living peacefully with their neighbors. For this the R.O.C. welcomes the arrival of the global tides of democratization, development, international integration and détente in East Asia.