April 27, 2005



SUBJECT: Off to Beijing: The KMT in China

I would like to draw your attention to the following oped (“Lien's Trip Takes Taiwan Down the Wrong Path”), which appeared in today's Asian Wall Street Journal. The piece is co-authored by Project Executive Director Gary Schmitt and AEI fellow Dan Blumenthal.

Lien’s Trip Takes Taiwan Down the Wrong Path
Dan Blumenthal and Gary Schmitt
Asian Wall Street Journal
April 27, 2005

What a strange time for the leader of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, to embark on a “peace” visit to the mainland. Recent weeks and months have seen a series of provocative acts by Beijing, from state supported anti-Japanese protests that turned violent, to enactment of an “anti-secession” law which threatens the use of force against Taiwan, and pressure on Australia to “re-examine” its treaty with the United States.

Yet none of this has deterred KMT Chairman Lien Chan from undertaking an unprecedented eight-day visit to China, the first such trip by a KMT leader since his party lost the civil war with the Communists and fled to Taiwan 56 years ago.

Mr. Lien, who began his visit in Nanjing yesterday, has been reluctant to reveal exactly what will be discussed during the trip. But it’s likely he’ll return to Taiwan next week with a goody bag of economic and political gestures, perhaps even including an offer by Beijing to discuss a pullback of some of the 600-plus missiles it has pointed at Taiwan. Never mind that any such offer will amount to no more than a gesture. Such short-range missiles are easily moveable and, even after a pullback, could be quickly redeployed to threaten Taiwan again. The more fundamental problem is that Mr. Lien will be discussing matters that fall clearly within the authority of the democratically elected government of Taiwan President Chen Shuibian.

Americans are, of course, only too familiar with major politicians running off to meet with governments with whom Washington has tense relations. But they are equally familiar with virtually every administration’s refrain that when it comes to substantive talks: “No thank you, we run foreign policy.”

But that’s not how some in the Bush administration have responded to the KMT’s initiative. Instead U.S. State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli praised “recent travels to China by Taiwanese individuals” as “positive steps.” U.S. officials were also reported to have put pressure on Taiwan not to criticize Mr. Lien’s visit.

The administration’s position ignores the game that Beijing and Mr. Lien are playing, and only encourages behavior that is likely to worsen, rather than resolve, cross-Strait tensions. The real story behind Mr. Lien’s visit is his continuing refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Mr. Chen’s government. In control of a majority coalition within Taiwan’s legislature, he has directed his party to block virtually all legislative proposals, bringing the government to a grinding standstill.

Particularly serious from the U.S. perspective is Mr. Lien’s repeated attempts to prevent the legislature from considering a special budget to buy arms desperately needed for Taiwan’s defense. Introduced into the legislature almost one year ago, this supplemental budget would fund the purchase of diesel submarines, anti-submarine P3-C aircraft, and PAC-3 missile defense batteries. If passed, it would mark a major step forward in Washington’s long-standing goal of prodding Taiwan to provide the necessary resources to defend itself against Beijing’s military buildup. The Chen government and the Taiwan military have worked assiduously to promote this supplemental budget, only to have it blocked from debate time and again.

KMT officials and legislators have provided a laundry list of complaints, questioning everything from $15.38 billion price tag to the use of a special budget process, as well as arguing that missile defenses are unnecessary or should by provided by the U.S. for free as a symbol of its commitment to defend Taiwan’s democracy. The lack of coherence in these criticisms tells its own story: That the real reason is raw political animus against President Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party. How else to explain their opposition given the fact that the KMT requested the same weapons systems when it held power in Taiwan?

The KMT ruled Taiwan as a one-party state for the whole of the Cold War, gradually giving way to democracy in the 1990s. Its senior leaders have never really accepted the political judgment of the Taiwanese people in electing President Chen—first, in 2000, with well less than a majority and, again, in 2004, with a contested razor thin margin of only 29,000 votes. Toss in the DPP’s failure to fulfill widespread expectations that it would win a working majority in last November’s legislative elections, and it is not difficult to find KMT officials who believe that they, rather than President Chen and his advisers, should be running things.

It is not interfering in Taiwan’s internal politics for Washington to be clearheaded about the interests and principles that are at stake. Encouraging the KMT visit, as one senior administration official did, on the grounds that “talks are better than no talks” is the wrong signal to send. What form talks take does matter. The absence of a meaningful cross-Strait dialogue is the direct result of Beijing’s refusal to deal with the democratically elected leader of Taiwan.

Does Washington really want to give Beijing the prerogative of picking whom it will deal with when it comes to democratic Taiwan? Mr. Lien’s dual-legged policy of keeping Taiwan weak, while working with China to undermine President Chen, can only fuel Beijing’s bellicose ambitions. And that is, most decidedly, not in America’s best interests.

The problems Taiwan faces today are not unusual. Newly elected democrats often struggle to learn how to govern and opposition parties just as often struggle to learn how to criticize the government policies without undercutting the government. The goal should be sensible partisanship, not polarizing politics. The danger in Taiwan right now is that the KMT, under Mr. Lien, is headed toward the latter.

The next generation of KMT leaders, such as Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-Jiou and Wang Jingpyng, the president of the legislature, do not have to go down that road. They have an opportunity to lead their party into a position of responsibility and leadership on national security and defense matters—in other words, a position of loyal opposition. That means not standing passively by while Mr. Lien leads their party down a path that will be difficult to retrace. Equally important, it means Washington must be much smarter about encouraging the right kind of partisan behavior in a young democracy.

Mr. Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and, prior to that, was senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s Office of International Security Affairs. Mr. Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century.