TSR Interview with Alan Romberg*

July 30, 2014


Rather than airing internal differences over a proposed freeze of the DPP charter’s independence clause at the July 20th DPP National Party Congress, Tsai Ing-wen sent the freeze proposal to the party’s Central Executive Committee for consideration. Taiwan Security Research’s Kristian McGuire** speaks with Alan Romberg, distinguished fellow and director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, about the independence clause issue, the recent National Conference on Economic and Trade Affairs, and more in this TSR interview.

By davidreid [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By davidreid [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Kristian McGuire: Currently, there is a debate going on within the DPP over whether or not to freeze the independence clause in the party’s charter prior to the 2016 presidential election. Former DPP legislator Julian Kuo has said that the freeze is intended, not to gain CCP support, but to allow the U.S. to remain neutral in the election. In your estimate, would the U.S. government welcome a freeze of the independence clause, and conversely, would it be difficult for the U.S. to remain completely neutral in the 2016 election without a freeze?


Alan Romberg: The basic point I would make is that the U.S. wants to see a calm and constructive relationship across the Strait. So whatever contributes to that is good from the U.S. point of view, whatever detracts from that is bad.


The question of a freeze is something that, in a way, is in the eye of the beholder. My impression is that, while Beijing would welcome a freeze as being better than the current situation, it also will pay attention to whether the net result of that is in fact a movement away from commitment by the DPP to essentially what is a Taiwan independence or “one country on each side” position and movement to embrace some kind of one-China framework position, or not.


The impression I have is that if the 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future and other DPP positions remain unchanged, this is not going to lead either to a party-to-party tie across the Strait or to a particularly warm relationship should the DPP win in 2016. Julian Kuo is making the point that pleasing Beijing or satisfying Beijing is not the goal, but rather trying to persuade the U.S. that the DPP’s position is sufficiently reasonable so that the U.S. doesn’t make any negative comments.


I think it is hard to predict where the U.S. is going to come out on this. First of all, it’s really very distasteful to the United States to do anything that seems to be intervening in a democratic process. We’re all familiar with the situation that obtained in September 2011 when, after Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States there was a background statement given to The Financial Times critical of Tsai and her approach to cross-Strait relations. But I don’t think that was done with any relish. It reflected a serious concern about the possibility of a disruption in the positive trend in cross-Strait relations.


This time, I don’t know. It depends on a lot of circumstances. I don’t think we can simply say: well, if the DPP freezes the Taiwan independence plank from 1991 then, from the U.S. point of view that takes care of any concerns we might have. Keep in mind, on the one hand, the U.S. does not feel it is its role to tell Taiwan or any party in Taiwan what its position on “one China” should be. On the other hand, the U.S. does want to encourage a continuation of the smooth cross-Strait process that has been ongoing for the last six years.


So I think it’s a bit hard to predict what the U.S. would do. And I think we still need to pay attention, despite Julian Kuo’s comment, to what Beijing would do because I think they’re related. If the PRC were somehow, in the course of the campaign, to decide that they needed to signal that there would be a serious disruption in cross-Strait relations if a government came into power in Taipei that had the position that the DPP was holding at that time, the U.S. would have to at least pay attention. It isn’t that the U.S. slavishly follows Beijing’s lead on this, but in considering the future of cross-Strait relations one has to consider what both sides are doing and how they are evaluating what the other side is doing. And it is my sense that Tsai Ing-wen’s statements to the press recently that, if the DPP does well at the end of the year seven-in-one or nine-in-one local elections, then Beijing would shift its views about the DPP, does not accord with Beijing’s attitude. Beijing’s view of Tsai’s comment is, to caricature it a bit: Where did you get that idea?


So I do not expect a crisis in cross-Strait relations in terms of military pressure or something like that. I do not see any DPP candidate advocating a formal declaration of independence or anything of the sort. And therefore, based on what I have heard in various circles in Beijing, the concerns that Beijing had in 2007 about the UN referendum, for example, which I think could have led to a serious crisis had that referendum passed and especially had the DPP won are not the kind of concerns that are of relevance today. But whatever the problems may be, whatever concerns there may be in Taiwan about the nature of the Services Trade Agreement or any other aspect of cross-Strait relations, the fact is that a smooth relationship is certainly not only in the interests of both sides of the Strait, but also in the interests of peace and stability in the region. And that’s what the U.S. is really focused on.


To close the circle, I think the U.S. would very much like to be neutral as between political parties in Taiwan. It is not our business to try to tell people in Taiwan whom they should vote for and who would do the best job running the government. But I think that the U.S. will be looking to see what impact whatever position the DPP ends up taking will have on cross-Strait relations and peace and stability in the Strait and it will have to make some judgments based on that.


Kristian McGuire: On a related note, according to public opinion surveys conducted by the DPP earlier this year, there is more concern in Taiwan about the DPP’s reflexive opposition to anything related to China and its conservative cross-Strait economic policy than there is about the party’s support for independence. Therefore, might the DPP obviate the need for a freeze by demonstrating more flexibility in its cross-Strait policies, or is that just a political non-starter either from Beijing’s standpoint or from the DPP’s?


Alan Romberg: I would have to say I don’t see the DPP as “reflexively opposed to anything related to the mainland.” I know that’s how the poll phrased its question, but I don’t think that’s the correct appraisal of the DPP’s position. If I were to characterize it in a very broad way, and I’m sure it’s unfair to the nuance of the DPP position, but basically I think they want a good workable relationship—and we can go back to discuss the economic agreements—but basically a truly mutually beneficial economic relationship, maintenance of peace and stability in the Strait, and so forth. And I think this position, in a way, has evolved importantly over time. I recall that at one point Tsai Ing-wen, for example, indicated that, well, maybe we’ll revise ECFA. And that evolved to essentially acceptance of ECFA, even though there is a sense that perhaps it’s not the most beneficial agreement that ever could have been thought of. So I’d start with that. I think the polling question about “reflexive opposition” captured a certain perception in Taiwan, but it’s not a perception that I actually share.


I think that a lower level of concern about Taiwan independence is also justified in the sense that I don’t see anybody in the DPP who is likely to be a candidate advocating a declaration of Taiwan independence. Any likely candidate would argue that Taiwan, under whatever name—be it Taiwan or the Republic of China, is a sovereign, independent state separate from the mainland. The difference from the KMT, of course, is that while the KMT agrees that the Republic of China is a sovereign, independent state, it also holds essentially a constitutional one-China position saying that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to one China (i.e., the ROC) even if the total jurisdiction is not held in one place.


So I think that the management of the relationship is what that poll was probably really getting at, and the importance to people in Taiwan of managing that relationship well. And that is a valid concern, a concern that is shared very broadly. And if you ask people in the DPP I think they would say, yes, we share that too, but they have their own view about what is necessary or what is not necessary to manage that relationship well.


In terms of the implications for a freeze and the question of whether the DPP could somehow bypass the issue of a freeze if it took a more positive attitude toward cross-Strait relations, it seems to me that these are really separate, or at least separable, issues. The 1991 Taiwan independence plank has always bothered Beijing as has the 2007 “normal country” resolution. That is because Beijing reacts to these by saying, well maybe you’ve got the 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, which doesn’t call for a referendum to declare a Republic of Taiwan, but by maintaining that 1991 plank, as well as the 2007 resolution, essentially you still formally adhere to an explicit Taiwan independence position.


The fact of the matter, though, as I indicated in my first response, is that, while welcoming the freeze of the 1991 plank, Beijing really sees the 1999 Kaohsiung Resolution on Taiwan’s Future as still reflecting a “one country on each side” position. So while, as they said when the issue came up in January, they would welcome a freeze, I am very skeptical to put it mildly that that would lead Beijing to institute party-to-party relations between the DPP and the Chinese Communist Party or to suggest that that would suffice in their view to guarantee a smooth relationship between Taiwan and the mainland should the DPP take office in 2016.


Kristian McGuire: Is there enough unity within the DPP right now to decide the independence clause issue and move forward, or might differences over the issue divide the party before or after the 2016 election?


Alan Romberg: I can’t really answer that question very confidently. There are obvious differences. The fact that the DPP pushed off any real measures to address cross-Strait policy in January, and that they didn’t address it at the recent congress, makes pretty clear that there are some pretty sharp differences. And we’ve seen that in open debate.


That said, even though there has been strong advocacy in favor of a freeze and some strong advocacy against it, I don’t think that necessarily means that the party cannot come up with a consensus—probably not meaning unity, but perhaps a strong majority within the party, that defines what the party’s position will be. However, I think it’s very difficult to predict at this remove what that might look like.


I don’t expect any serious addressing of this issue until after the November 29 elections. I would also think that how that issue is resolved, that is whether they make no change or adopt some sort of modified position in the run-up to 2016, will also depend on who the candidate is.


So I don’t feel that I could predict how this will turn out. But what is clear is that there are differences within the DPP and it will take some very delicate political negotiation inside the party to try to come up with a position that is going to be generally acceptable to the vast majority of the people in the DPP and also appeal to voters.


Kristian McGuire: So it’s too early to say whether or not this could lead to a splintering of the party?


Alan Romberg: I think it is too early to say whether there would be a “splintering of the party” or, if there were one, what it might look like. Any splintering would obviously weaken the party and would be something that people interested in having the party return to power in 2016 would devoutly hope to avoid. So I think that there would be a very strong effort to come up with what would be broadly acceptable to the majority. Whether that’s going to be possible, we’ll have to wait and see.


Kristian McGuire: Turning to the KMT, while the DPP is dealing with its internal differences, the KMT seems to be trying to garner public support for its economic policies and, more specifically, to reassure skeptics about its cross-Strait economic strategy. During last weekend’s National Conference on Economic and Trade Affairs, President Ma expressed a sense of urgency that Taiwan must overcome its internal strife so that it can “catch up on regional integration.” Is the KMT’s push for regional economic integration liable to dampen skepticism about the party’s cross-Strait economic policies?


Alan Romberg: Again, it’s hard to say, especially in light of the general mood of skepticism that was accentuated during and after the Sunflower Movement. In my view, it is true that Taiwan needs both to continue to foster its very important economic relationship with the mainland and to diversify its economic activities. We know that the export market is something like 40 percent dependent on the mainland market, as it has been throughout the Ma administration, and maybe 28 percent, or something like that, dependent on the mainland for overall trade. I think diversification is important not only to avoid excessive dependence on the mainland per se but simply because it makes sense not to have too much tied up with any single market.


I also think it is a fact of life, whether people like or not, and I don’t blame them if they don’t particularly like it, that Taiwan’s ability to diversify in the sense of participation in regional economic activities such as RCEP or even TPP will depend in important ways on the attitude of the PRC. In the case of RCEP, it’s obviously rather direct because the mainland is a participant in the RCEP process and is therefore directly capable of influencing in a very strong way whatever happens there. And even in the case of TPP there are, of course, currently 12 negotiating partners, and assuming that TPP comes into being, which I very much hope it will, it isn’t just the attitude in the United States that will matter; the attitude of all 12 negotiating partners will matter, and I think it is predictable that some of them will be willing to listen very closely to the PRC’s attitude about possible Taiwan participation.


Having said all of that, I think that it’s important to say two other things. One is, particularly with regard to TPP, Taiwan’s economy is not yet in shape to be a credible candidate. It has a lot of work to do. So that will take some time. Second, neither of these arrangements is quite ready for primetime. And so there is some time before Taiwan might, especially again with TPP, be in a position where the grouping would be open to looking at possible Taiwan participation.


What we’ve seen of course is that Beijing’s attitude is, one, that it wants to finish the ECFA agenda first; which means the trade in services agreement, the commodities trade agreement, and the dispute resolution agreement. And then, after that the mainland wants to jointly consider together with Taiwan how Taiwan’s participation in regional groupings might best be arranged.


There are all sorts of elements to that situation that are very sensitive and difficult. I do note that former vice president Vincent Siew and the MAC Minister Wang Yu-chi both have talked about a “joint approach” with the mainland. I’m sure that in their case they are not talking about “joint” in the sense that Taiwan would somehow be in a subordinate position to the PRC. So, while conceptually there may be agreement to consult, nevertheless there is a delicate dimension to this that will need to be addressed.


My understanding is that during Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun’s recent visit to Taiwan it was agreed that there would be a joint study undertaken to look at this question. But I also read that that issue will not be on the agenda of the upcoming cross-Strait review meeting in the next several weeks because it is a “political question” at least as much as it is an economic question.


I have to say that in my conversations in Beijing, I hear some sympathy about Taiwan’s need for participation in regional economic arrangements from an economic point of view. But there are these other dimensions that I just touched on regarding both ECFA and then the need to approach this in a consultative way with Beijing that need to somehow be taken into account. And so there is work to do. I don’t think these things are impossible to bring to some kind of satisfactory arrangement, but I do think that it is important to have in mind that the PRC is going to play an important role here, and to dismiss that is not realistic.


Kristian McGuire: That leads to another question, seeing that diversification is so important but Beijing seems to hold a de facto veto over Taiwan’s regional integration, is such regional economic integration possible for Taiwan without making significant political concessions to Beijing?


Alan Romberg: I think that, in the course of consultation with Beijing—which, as I say, is going to be necessary—that kind of thing has to be worked out. I can’t answer what Beijing’s view on this is going to be in specific terms. I do think that, on the one hand, while the mainland wants to ensure that there is no suggestion of a “one China, one Taiwan” or “two Chinas” image in any of this, they understand that somehow making Taiwan appear to be a subordinate element under the PRC is essentially a non-starter in Taiwan and so they also have to think in nuanced terms about how to square that circle.


But I don’t think it’s impossible. After all, a big part of what the PRC is interested in doing here is winning hearts and minds in Taiwan and they’re not going to do that—and I think they’re well aware they’re not going to do that—if they try to impose conditions that are simply going to be rejected by people in Taiwan. So the answer again is: I don’t know what the terms would be but it clearly is a delicate matter of great importance to both sides. Still, I don’t automatically assume that it’s impossible to come to terms that would be mutually acceptable.


Kristian McGuire: Finally, are there any events or publications you or your colleagues at the Stimson Center are working on that our readers should be aware of?


Alan Romberg: Let me mention my periodic contributions to the China Leadership Monitor, an online publication put out by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University every three or four months. It’s devoted primarily to issues directly concerned with the PRC, with leadership, with military issues, and so on. My contribution is focused on cross-Strait issues, the U.S. role, et cetera.


There also was a compilation of my China Leadership Monitor essays between 2006 and 2012 that was published in a three volume set by the Stimson Center a couple of years ago entitled Across the Taiwan Strait: from Confrontation to Cooperation. It’s available by going to Amazon.


Kristian McGuire: Thank you for sharing your insights and opinions with us today.


*Alan Romberg is distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at Stimson. Before joining Stimson in September 2000, he enjoyed a distinguished career working on Asian issues, both in and out of government, including 27 years in the State Department, with over 20 years as a U.S.


Foreign Service Officer. Romberg was the principal deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs and deputy spokesman of the department. He served in various capacities dealing with East Asia, including director of the Office of Japanese Affairs, member of the Policy Planning staff for East Asia, and staff member at the National Security Council for China. He served overseas in Hong Kong and Taiwan.


Additionally, Romberg spent almost 10 years as the CV Starr Senior Fellow for Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and was special assistant to the secretary of the navy.


Romberg holds an M.A. from Harvard University, and a B.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.


**Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based researcher and volunteer with Taiwan Security Research. He recently earned his master of international affairs degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests include U.S.-Taiwan relations, cross-Strait relations, East Asian regional security, and two-level games in alliance politics.

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