Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, May 31, 2000

Unofficial negotiator with Taiwan gives assessment of latest cross-strait 'crisis'


The Chinese word for crisis is composed of the characters for danger and opportunity, an apt description for the current situation between Beijing and Taipei leaders, Richard Bush, the United States' unofficial diplomatic connection to Taiwan, said at Stanford's Bechtel Conference Center on Wednesday, May 24.

The United States, Bush said, should stay its course on China policy and look for ways to enhance the opportunities for the two countries' leaders to build up trust in each other.

As chair of the American Institute in Taiwan, Bush had just returned from heading the formal U.S. delegation to the May 20 inauguration of Taiwan President Chen Shui-Bian and said he was still a bit groggy from an all-night flight from Taipei. Invited by the Walter H. Shorenstein Forum of the Asia/Pacific Research Center, Bush spoke to a packed house of Stanford students, faculty and surrounding community members and gave an assessment of the current cross-strait "crisis."

On March 18, the Taiwanese elected Chen, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, in what was the first instance of a peaceful democratic change of power in China. The fact that Chen and his out-of-power party had long advocated that Taiwan declare its independence from the mainland rattled officials of the People's Republic. They issued a white paper during the campaign threatening Taiwan if it did not accept the PRC's conception of eventual reunification. The PRC even threatened to impose a political test on the 200,000 Taiwanese businesspeople who live and work on the mainland.

"With Mr. Chen's election, we are now into uncharted territory," Bush said, but he added that the situation is "not as dire as pessimistic logic might indicate."

Chen, he said, has "borrowed a page" from the political notebook of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in order to get his Labor Party into power again, had to change some of the dogma of the party. Chen promised in his campaign and again in his inaugural speech not to declare independence from the mainland nor hold a referendum on the issue. "He also has remained calm in the face of Beijing's propaganda barrage," Bush said.

The election signals a major change in the status quo, he added, because any agreement that the leaders in Beijing and Taipei might work out now must take into account public opinion in Taiwan. "Elections and transfers of power are important, because over time they make leaders more accountable to the public and collective intent," Bush said.

Outsiders, including the United States, should anticipate that policy decisions will be somewhat different and slower in coming from Taiwan than in the past, he said. That's because Chen was elected with just 39 percent of the vote and will need to build coalitions to act. "The public will play a key role in change but there will be more continuity than expected at first glance," he said, noting that the results were not so much a change of will of voters as a reflection of independent candidates entering the race and splitting the vote, as has happened a number of times in U.S. presidential politics.

Larry Diamond, a Hoover Institution scholar of democratization processes, credited Bush and the Clinton administration with convincing Chen to move to the political center, but he asked Bush how long the status quo of no negotiations taking place across the strait would remain viable.

"It appears the context has changed where forbearance may no longer be enough," Diamond said, referring to U.S. policy, which since the late 1970s has been to agree with the PRC that there is only one China but also to insist that any actual reunification be carried out peacefully between the two parties. The United States also tries to avoid commenting on the occasional rhetorical flare-ups between the two sides over whether agreement to a one-China policy is a precondition to renewed talks or an item for the agenda.

Bush refused to speculate on timing but stressed the importance of confidence- building measures between the two parties. "We do have an argument over words and terms, but they are symptoms that each side distrusts each other," he said. "That mutual distrust, if it goes on, can be corrosive. The challenge is for each side to find ways to reassure the other that its worst fears are not justified. Chen has demonstrated he's eager for that kind of discussion, and the signals out of Beijing in the last couple days are not that bad."

Before the talk, Stanford China scholar Michel Oksenberg introduced Bush to the audience as one of his favorite students from their days at Columbia University, and one from a long tradition of U.S. China scholars whose interest was sparked by parents who were missionaries in China. But when Bush was just beginning graduate school, Oksenberg said, he told his professor that his interest in China sprang partly from a desire to "understand why China had found it so difficult to experience gradual changes, rather than being trapped in a cycle between reactionary rule and revolution." Now, Oksenberg said, Bush sits in an ideal position to witness "one of the great instances of reform in China." SR