Sept. 8, 2008

Taiwan party head and CU alum details island's tense relations with China

Despite Taiwan's strides in democracy, trade and identity, other governments' policy does not reflect "the 'reality' of Taiwan independence.'" That is the view of Tsai Ing-Wen, chair of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan since May, who spoke at Cornell Law School Sept. 4.

Meanwhile, tense and ambiguous relations persist between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC), which keeps a close eye across the Strait of Taiwan on the island's economic growth and constitutional reforms, she said.

Tsai, a 1980 graduate of Cornell Law School, recounted Taiwan's long tradition of colonial and imperial control under first the Dutch, then the Japanese and finally the Republic of China (ROC), which, under the Nationalist banner, retreated to Taiwan after the 1949 civil war, when the PRC was established. "The intention is clear that is the PRC consistently want[s] to make one China," she said.

In the early 1990s, the PRC declared itself as sovereign over one China, but Taiwan responded by declaring the ROC as sovereign. When the PRC enacted an anti-secession law, it "was much criticized by the international community as it contemplates use of nonpeaceful means against Taiwan," said Tsai.

Regardless of the so-called "one China principle" and the confusion concerning Taiwan's status in the world (it is not a member of the United Nations and has no official diplomatic representation in the United States), both the governing KMT (Nationalist Party) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Taiwan "have been insisting that [China and Taiwan] are actually two separate sovereignties," said Tsai, adding that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people say they are ethnically Taiwanese.

China, Taiwan and the United States all have a lot at stake regarding the status of China and Taiwan, she said, adding that "peace and stability serve the best interest of all the parties." For the moment, she suggested, the most pragmatic solution is accepting the tenuous, undefined status quo.

But what that means is different for each stakeholder. Tsai said she hopes that the mainland will follow "the universal laws of the game": peaceful negotiations that demonstrate respect of culture, democracy, free will and basic human rights. She added that "nationalism is not necessarily a bad idea if it is geared toward building a sense of community among people who have shared values and common objectives."

Following Tsai's lecture, Chen Jian, the Michael J. Zak Professor of History for U.S.-China Relations at Cornell, acknowledged the success of Taiwan's economic and democratic development, but noted the strong, shared history between Taiwan and the mainland, stressing the mainland belief that Taiwan is included in one sovereign China.

Tsai's former Cornell adviser, John J. Barceló III, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of International and Comparative Law at the Law School, also lauded Taiwan's embrace of economic and political modernity. He said, however, that a unilateral change would disrupt the stability in the region and suggested that Taiwan maintain its global position of "benign ambiguity," using its participation in the World Trade Organization as a model for its global involvement.

Tsai concluded by saying that the issue has a full past and a full future: "Cross-strait relations today has such a capacity that no one can say for sure what it will be like 20 years from now."

The lecture was sponsored by the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at the Law School.

Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.