Ramifications of Taiwan’s December 2001 Elections

for U.S.-PRC Relations

(4-5 February 2002)


The elections, which saw the upstart Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) replace the traditionally dominant Kuomintang (KMT) as the largest party in Taiwan’s legislature, marked another milestone in Taiwan’s democratization.


The election results produced no dramatic, immediate consequences for Asia-Pacific security, but they reveal the continuation of significant trends.


Taiwan’s own identity is contested within Taiwan.  Taiwanese nationalism and cultural pride is asserting itself; the question is how much room this leaves for a “Chinese” identity that associates Taiwan with China.  “Taiwanization”/“localization” does not necessarily require formal independence from China, but Taiwan politicians can make this linkage if they so choose.


China views the strengthened position of the DPP and President Chen Shui-bian as an indication of further movement by Taiwan toward independence.  This increases Chinese worries that Taiwan is drifting away and that current Chinese policy is not bringing Beijing closer to achieving its goals.


Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan remains rigid and uncreative, despite the great understanding of and appreciation for Taiwan politics demonstrated by many Chinese analysts.  In the absence of a path-breaking new Chinese approach to the Taiwan problem, recent developments favor Chinese elites who argue that building a military capability to subdue Taiwan is the only way to prevent independence.


The election results do not call for a change in basic U.S. policy toward Taiwan.  The American goal of peace in the Taiwan Strait requires continued deterence of  both PRC use of force and a Taiwan declaration of independence.


DPP success is correlated to some degree with the strength of Taiwanese nationalism.  DPP gains might indicate an increased risk that Taiwan will make formal political changes that would provoke a military conflict with China.  Mitigating factors, however, are that (1) Chen Shui-bian has shown no inclination to take the election results as a mandate to push further toward independence; and (2) “politics are local,” and cross-Strait relations are not the most important issue in Taiwan’s politics.


Keys to future developments: (1) domestic politics; how will leaders channel assertive nationalism in China and Taiwan and strong feelings in the USA toward China and Taiwan? (2) the economic context; with recoveries in the U.S. and Taiwan economies and a weaker PRC economy, cross-Strait tensions would probably have been greater than they are now.