The NUC: an alternative approach

Plenty has been written about Chen Shui-bian’s decision to ‘abolish’ the National Unification Council. Given that I have serious issues with what he’s done (and how he has done it), here is my suggestion for what he should have done, along with some problems with Chen’s behaviour. If Chen really needed to address the NUC (which I don’t particularly agree with), here’s what he should have done:

The proposal

Step One: Inform the US that Taiwan is considering the status of the NUC – but guarantee that Taiwan will not change the status quo, will not break the ‘4 noes, 1 without’ promises made at CSBs inauguration, and will consult again with the US before any decision is made.

Step Two: Announce (e.g. at Chen’s Chinese New Year speech) that the NUC and the associated guidelines need to be reviewed. Therefore there will be a session of the National Security Council (NSC) to review things, and that the NUC will meet for the first time in 6 years. Whatever is decided will not affect the status quo or breach the promises made in the inauguration.

Step Three: Hold a NSC meeting (on the 27th February) at which it is agreed that the budget of the NUC (NT$1000, or about US$30) is not sufficient for the NUC to do anything but simply review and ratify proposals agreed by the NSC. Announce that the NSC has come up with a proposal which will be put in front of the NUC. The NUC will meet on the 28th February to review the proposal.

Step Four: To keep the NUC within budget, hold the NUC meeting at a local ‘mien dian’ (noodle stand), and ask all the members (including President Chen) to forgo salary and expenses. There’s a ‘Fools Noodles’ restaurant just around the corner from the Presidential Palace which could probably serve a dozen bowls of noodle for NT$1000, and seat all the members of the committee (I would suggest the local McDonalds to boost US relations, but that would almost certainly go over budget and is always packed with schoolkids).

At the meeting, Chen Shui-bian would announce the NSC proposal to update the National Unification Guidelines to something along the lines of:

The people of Taiwan have full authority to determine the future of their nation, whether it be unification with China, declaring independence, or maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait; these are all considered options for Taiwan’s future.

These Guidelines have been specially formulated with the express hope that all people on either side of the Strait can work together to find a mutually acceptable solution to the current situation.

Given the historical, cultural and economic links between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, talks should be encouraged. Taiwan places no precondition on talks, and will consider any item for discussion. However, the following guidelines should be considered for talk about unification:

1) Taiwan’s future should be decided by Taiwanese people. This is a consensus of all the people in Taiwan.

2) The people of Taiwan must see a democratic mainland before they can consider unification.

3) To reassure people in Taiwan, who still have painful memories of the ‘2-28 incident’, Mainland China must reassesses the events of June 4th 1989 before talks begin on unification. If the June 4 verdict can be reversed, it definitely reflects that mainland China has new thoughts on human value and human rights.

4) No agreement on unification can be made under threat of war. Both sides must dismantle any direct threats to the other before any talks on unification.

The rationale

Why is this a good approach? Here is what it achieves:

  • It does not break Chen’s inauguration promises. In fact it is wholly in keeping with the spirit of the promises he made in 2004. Chen is right when he says that the guidelines are completely outdated – and an update is a much less controversial (and thus more likely to be supported) move than abolishing them.
  • The updated guidelines say things that are mainstream views of the people of Taiwan. Anyone who opposes them would have a hard time explaining exactly what they oppose.
  • The KMT and Ma Ying-jeou would have an especially hard time opposing them since the first paragraph and all four points are taken directly from speeches made by Ma since he became the KMT Chairman. (Here are links for: The first paragraph, point 1, point 2, point 3 and point 4). I’m aware that this makes the guidelines a bit over-agressive, so perhaps Ma’s original words need to be softened when made government policy.
  • Management of relations with the US are very important. Informing them, and explaining what is happening before it happens will ensure that they are not overly worried about changes to the Status Quo etc.
  • Updating the guidelines shows that nothing is written in stone in a democracy. A KMT government could quite easily rewrite them in 2008 – in which case the guidelines would be reduced to a statement of belief about unification of the current government.
  • This achieves Chen’s goal of removing the ‘One China’ principle and ‘national unification should be the common responsibility of all Chinese people’ from official government policy.

Issues with Chen’s behaviour

Here are my main problems with what Chen has done with the NUC:

  • The way this has handled must have damaged US-Taiwan relations. Although the US has stated that it is happy that Taiwan has not changed the status quo, this has only happened after some frantic diplomacy and explanation between the two sides. The fact that the US only found out about Chen’s plans from newspaper reports will have reinforced opinion that his administration is a ‘loose cannon’.
  • Since he made his CNY speech, Chen has not clarified the status of his ‘4 Noes, 1 Without’ pledge. Does he now think it doesn’t apply due to Chinese threats, or does he think his move does not break the ‘1 without’? Who knows. Various DPP officials (of varying seniority) have voiced their view, but Chen hasn’t. He needs to clarify things.
  • The argument that this is a reaction to China’s ‘anti-secession law’ is incredibly weak. That was passed over a year ago, and nothing unexpected has happened since then. In particular, Chen reasserted his inauguration promises (without any proviso of ‘as long as China does not threated to attack’) last February in his meeting with James Soong when it was almost certain that the ASL would be passed. Nothing unexpected has happened since then.
  • This will only increase tension between the KMT and the DPP in the legislature – a real lose-lose situation. In particular, the encouraging noises the KMT were making about the arms package are almost certain to be stamped out. It provides ammunition for the more hard-core KMT members. Any moderate voices on the blue side of the divide are much more likely to be shouted down. This may be to the advantage of the DPP, but it isn’t to the advantage of Taiwan.
  • Equally, it encourages a shift in the DPP to a more extreme position. The DPP is already showing signs of being out of touch with normal voters, and a shift to more emphasis on independence is likely to exasperate that. The DPP might think that a return to ‘first principles’ will give them more support, but in reality it will only appeal to people who already strong DPP supporters.

Note that, in all this, there is no reference to reaction from China. This is because the scrapping of the council does not affect policy in any serious manner; behind all the bluster, China is very aware of this and are probably happily thinking ‘roll on 2008’ and hoping that the DPP keep trying to dig themselves out of the hole they find themselves in.
(For reference, here are the original guidelines)

6 thoughts on “The NUC: an alternative approach

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  3. curious bystander

    Great analysis.

    I think if the Chen administration had openly discussed substantive changes and had given clearer explanations for scrapping the NUC and the Guidelines in a manner, it would have done a great deal to reassure the majority of the Taiwanese electorate who prefer the status quo. However, this whole thing was done for drama, and President Chen did well to capitalize on it (appropriate decorum or not, what better way than to berate a political rival in front of a live audience). It remains to be seen what the KMT and the PfP will do to retaliate. I can’t imagine what the opposition could do that is equally dramatic. Mayor Ma has a good public image, but that’s most likely his greatest political liability when your opponent plays dirty.

    I’m more interested in the hidden costs of this unilateral action in terms of relations with the U.S. The impact of this decision seemed to be played down by the local English-language press as well as the U.S., with the White House spokesman’s watered down interpretation (freeze as opposed to abolition). Has this affair truly undermined the working relationship between Washington and Taipei? Do we have to wait until late April to find out for certain?

  4. STOP_George


    Very thoughtful analyses!

    As for U.S. relations — it seems that Chen underestimated their initial reaction. However, it appears that any misunderstandings have been cleared up.

    Domestically, this is going to work very well for Chen (or more importantly, the DPP). The DPP, in my opinion, have to destroy this illusion that the KMT is now “for the people” and are a responsible alternative when dealing with the “status quo” and China. The DPP have to destroy this illusion that Ma represents a fresh new KMT. It may be easier than we thought, looking back over the past couple of weeks.

    The so-called “shock value” of this whole affair worked very well for Chen and the DPP (even thought the fruits of this manoeuver will take time to be realized). To have done things the way you have suggested, David, would not have caused Ma to react the way that he did.

  5. James

    Are there other comparable relationships between the US and another country? How do they perform in comparison with Taiwan?

    I think I mostly agree with your points; weight the costs and the benefits, no need to be ideological and presuppose either unification or independence.

    I wonder though that if Taiwan is to prepare for the possibility of unification with China, perhaps it would be advantageous to continue to make this type of independence noise–to be a little more irrational looking, to be a little more prickly, to be a little more, hey, watch it or you’re going to provoke Taiwan. All that happens now is Taiwan only rational has to consider the irrationality of the US or China. It seems good behavior is perversely, not rewarded, and it only weakens your negotiating position. For an extreme case, consider cases like Iran or Pakistan or Palestine: the fact is, the worse you are behaved, the more you can improve, and the more people are willing to give you to be good.

    I also agree the abolishment of the NUC definitely would have been more appropriately timed for right after the anti-seccession law was passed, but on the other hand, how do you measure the slow descent into isolation of the CSB administration, a lot of which has been caused by China’s use of Taiwan’s pan-Blue? It’s the death of a thousand cuts–I guess no one blow will be life-threatening, but at what point to you finally get to yell out?

    In the end, the US response was what it was, despite whatever the stumblings behind the scenes (I agree, CSB’s administration sucks at communication), the final message by the State Department was 1) we’re okay with getting rid of the NUC 2) the normal repetition of we’re against any violent acts on Taiwan by China and we’re against a Taiwanese declaration of independence and 3) Beijing start negotiating with the ELECTED leaders of Taiwan.

    Despite the ridiculous analyses by political talks shows in Taiwan that CSB conned the US State Dept through clever translation (no freakin way) and the focus on the possible unhappiness of the US, the final message was a swipe at Beijing AND Lien/Soong trips to China. That TVSB shit gets ridiculous, what is up with calling for a “people’s revolution” Phillipinnes style? Are they fucking nuts? Anyways, despite the hubbub cause by all this, I don’t think this whole thing was that big a deal all around.

    China was against the implementation of these guidelines, and they’re against the abolishment of the them. So basically, there’s no right choice from China’s point of view and we can ignore their reaction since no one anywhere thinks this changes the status quo.

    While the issue could have been handled better, I’m not so sure what the US reaction WITH notice is supposed to be. I think it’s always in the back of the minds of US diplomats to never look like you support anything that remotely sounds like independence and never sound like you are supporting one political camp over another. It’s just another example of the ill-thought out strategic ambiguity policy.

  6. hongkong rubber pork chop

    Any ““people’s revolution” Phillipinnes style” will consist of the 87% population that opposes unification putting the 13% that does onto anything and everything that floats or flys and sending their sorry asses back home.

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