Advancing Taiwan spurns dragon's embrace

Across the Taiwan Strait - As Taiwan Approaches the Millennium
August 17, 2001

For too long Taiwan has been a mere footnote in the larger field of China studies despite the remarkable transition to democracy that began there in 1987 and culminated in the election of the first non-Kuomintang president in March 2000.

Most scholarship on Taiwan has focused on its relations with the Chinese mainland, still claiming after 50 years of painful separation that Taiwan is merely another province. Although relations with Beijing still dominate Taiwan's political agenda, few analysts have been able to marshal the empirical evidence with intellectual precision to connect this to the wider issue of Taiwan's political evolution. These two volumes are a valuable step forward. In a prolific writing career, John F. Copper has contributed more than most to our understanding of Taiwan's democratisation. His latest offering is a collection of essays previously published in 1997 and 1998 that, though unable to anticipate the result of the 2000 election, nevertheless provides the context to appreciate the full significance of the peaceful transfer of power.

The book is complemented by a remarkable collection of well-written essays edited by Suisheng Zhao that adds depth to Copper's solid foundation. Both volumes use the 1995-96 crisis period as the framework for their analyses. In summer 1995, Beijing began military exercises to protest a visit by Taiwan's president, then Lee Teng-hui, to Cornell University. In March 1996, more military tests "coincided" with the first direct election of a Chinese leader in 5,000 years of history when, despite Beijing's intimidation, the people of Taiwan elected Lee as their president. The missile crisis was likewise a test for the Clinton administration's China policy, and Washington decided to despatch the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate its opposition to a military takeover of Taiwan by Chinese forces.

While there is no consensus on the causes or consequences of China's aggression, these books illuminate the details of the crisis and parade the diversity of approaches and interpretations that structure the debates on relations between Taipei and Beijing. Although they agree that Taiwan's democratisation is central to explaining China's actions in 1996, the contributors to Zhao's volume have little to say about the internal dynamics of Taiwan's political system.

In contrast, Copper discusses the nature of Taiwan's transition to democracy, including a detailed synopsis of the Kuomintang's crucial 15th Party Congress in 1997. In less capable hands, such subject matter would degenerate into a tedious narrative of intra-party minutiae, but Copper never strays from his main concern - how relations with Beijing have affected Taiwan's political system and vice versa.

Copper also provides insight into Chinese motives for their actions in 1996. He proposes that the aggression was due not only to Beijing's fear of a democratic (and therefore possibly independent) Taiwan, but was equally determined by internal forces in China. Copper argues that four interrelated factors - China's booming economy, its growth as a regional military power, the jockeying for position among China's leadership in anticipation of Deng Xiaoping's death and the apparent rise of nationalism as an alternative to communism - combined with the worrying momentum of Taiwan's democratisation to provoke Beijing.

The coverage of the essays in Zhao's volume is impressive and wide-ranging. A distinguished group of international scholars considers the Taiwan-China problem from a variety of innovative and exciting perspectives that embrace political economy, leadership analysis, diplomacy and a discussion of the military aspects of the relationship.

The contributors seem optimistic: several view the growing economic interdependence of China and Taiwan as encouraging and express their disappointment that economic ties have "not resulted in a spillover effect to overcome political disintegrative tendencies". Yet none of the contributors discusses the burgeoning civil society that is facilitating links between people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and that transcends the economic (religion, for example).

The authors are also confident that reconciliation between Beijing and Taipei is the only mutually beneficial solution to their problems. But as the authors indicate, both sides must first recognise this, and their failure to do so remains the biggest obstacle to better relations. Beijing continues to warn Taiwan that reunification with China is the only way to prevent more aggression; Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, has said that Taiwan should decide its future. A mutually beneficial solution still seems unreachable.

Gary D. Rawnsley is lecturer in politics, University of Nottingham.

Across the Taiwan Strait: Mainland China, Taiwan and the 1995-1996 Crisis

Editor - Suisheng Zhao
ISBN - 0 4159 2333 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £15.99
Pages - 306

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