When asked to choose their President for the next four years, Taiwanese awarded Chen Shui-bian a narrow victory and, consequently, a second mandate. However, in the days running up to the elections, Shui-bian surely saw his referendum on Chinese missiles and on the territory’s relations with mainland China as the biggest challenge of all to come. Polls showed an optimistic scenario regarding his re-election possibilities, something that was being dealt with unease by the Chinese authorities, who were firmly backing Kuomintang’s candidate Lien Chan moderate approach towards nationalism and were, moreover, apprehensive about the possibility of an adverse referendum result in Taiwan.
Still, it was the failed assassination attempt of Shui-bian and of his vice-president Anette Lu in the former Taiwanese capital city Tainan on elections’ eve that definitely influenced the electoral journey and, some argue, the choices made by the Taiwanese. That’s why the possibility of it having been a marketing operation masterminded by Shui-bian’s team instantly came up, its oddity notwithstanding. Surely, the idea that both would have been easy targets even for a mildly experienced sniper and also the much criticized fact that Shui-bian has put his men in charge of investigations add to that possibility, but an orchestrated scene seems absurd. Sticking a bullet between Shui-bian’s flesh and shirt definitely seems risky as an option, especially when aiming at the driver’s window or the car’s front lights would have produced almost the same impact on voters’ minds.
In the midst of perplexity, other possibilities were put forward, such as an operation sponsored by the fearful neighbours from mainland China or an isolated and desperate act from a disillusioned Taiwanese citizen. For all the rationality such a scheme would bear, the former doesn’t seem to match China’s Communist Party recent tactics for dealing with adversities of this kind; the latter looks undoubtedly more suitable as an explanation for what happened in Tainan, especially when taking Shui-bian’s economic underperformance and ever intensifying nationalist verbosity into account.
IS IT THE ECONOMY?
Putting this unprecedented assassination attempt aside, it is important to understand that what was at stake in these elections was much more than just getting to know the identity of the president for the coming mandate. In this sense, a serious analysis should focus, not only on Taiwanese domestic politics, but also – and perhaps most interestingly – on the consequences regarding the international scenario that could derive from choosing either Shui-bian or Chan as President.
A first level of analysis, therefore, would take us into acknowledging the electoral clash of two utmost different personal profiles and projects: on the one hand, the nationalist and populist way of provocation-prone Shui-bian; on the other hand, the pacifist and so to say moderate agenda of Chan. Since his surprise election as President of Taiwan in 2000 and though he has never clearly stated his desire of getting through with full independence, Shui-bian was at all times seen as an obstacle to any kind of agreement falling short of this ‘status quo’. This stance would certainly be softened were Chan to win the election.
Curiously, the role historically played by Chan’s Kuomintang – which has established itself in Taiwan (promptly acclaimed by its leader Chiang Kai-Shek as the Republic of China) back in 1949 in full defiance of and following an open combat with the Communist forces in the People’s Republic – stands nowadays as the major rationale behind Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) agenda. Adding to curiosity, the same Communist Party which expelled Kuomintang from the mainland now more or less openly backed its presidential candidate Lien Chan in his campaign against a more radical and, from Beijing’s point of view, less interesting Shui-bian.
On a domestic level, thus, the ratio between the impact of nationalism and that of other mainly domestic issues (e.g. the economy or the welfare state) on voters’ minds should ultimately have decided the winner of this race. Considering Taiwan’s ethnic heterogeneity and the ensuing adverse structural conditions for anyone trying to gather support for a nationalist adventure, one could from the beginning anticipate the faith of any candidate defending such an approach. However, this theory seems to have been defeated by Shui-bian’s electoral result, even more revealing as his presidential record on domestic matters is far from impressive. Nationalism is still appealing in Taiwan – or so it seems.
WHEN A GREAT POWER, THEN A GREAT DILEMMA
The elections in Taiwan were a great test to the behavioural pattern shown by Chinese leaders this last decade. Having embarked in 1978 on a development strategy that conjugates both economic openness and a firm Communist leadership, China has developed these last few years a pragmatic approach regarding international issues. This new stance ultimately paved the way for the implementation of a «good neighbour» policy, directed at improving China’s relations with neighbouring countries through the use of its most important assets: territory, military manpower and unparalleled market possibilities. Basically, China started making use of its soft power in order to conquer regional hegemony, the country’s main goal for the short term. The results of this policy are still to be seen, but it would not be reasonable to deny the fantasies developed by governments and entrepreneurs all over the world over the Chinese economy.
Reintegrating Taiwan, therefore, is not seen by Chinese leaders as a ‘sine qua non’ condition for accomplishing this hegemony, even less when it is highly likely that such a reintegration would suppose that considerable military demands be placed upon mainland China. As Evan Medeiros and M. Taylor Fravel have skilfully argued in the November/December 2003 issue of «Foreign Affairs», Chinese policy towards what it sees as a rebel province has been “focused more on coercion to prevent independence than (…) on encouraging reunification”. Obviously, this does not mean China has not developed second thoughts on the referendum idea. The important thing is, one should expect China to maintain a firm refusal to accept any kind of pro-independence move by Taiwanese authorities, but no proactive position will be taken unless an extreme threat emanates from that territory. So long as Taiwan’s political status remains ill-defined, China will be careful enough so as not to set off an open conflict.
This scenario changes radically, nonetheless, if – as some argue – China’s main strategic goal is indeed to dispute US hegemony in world affairs. In this case, anything short of reintegrating Taiwan would be unbearable to the Chinese.
A DISTANT BUT UNCOMFORTABLE SCENARIO
For the international community (namely for the US and for Europe, but also for countries such as Japan or India), Taiwan’s current arguments are honest. After all, which country would be pleased with being the object of a permanent military threat and with having a few hundred long-range missiles pointed at its territory? Furthermore, some countries – such as the US or Japan, for example – are no doubt interested in counterbalancing China’s expansionist intentions.
The truth is, no one seems interested in setting off a conflict between China and Taiwan, a conflict whose consequences and scale one can just imagine. Such a situation would inevitably draw other countries into the conflict, not only from the Asia-Pacific region (already endangered by North Korea’s disruptive behaviour), but also the US – which has a strong ally in Taiwan and is simultaneously one of its greatest arms’ suppliers – and, presumably, Europe. Under the current circumstances, however, it is hard to imagine how these last two would be able to cope with demands of military engagement should a conflict break out in the Taiwan Strait.
Ensuring public support for such an engagement, moreover, would be a colossal task. Insofar as the suffering of the Iraqi people and the possibility of Saddam Hussein getting his hands on WMD were not enough to secure a minimal level of support for the invasion of Iraq, should we expect Europeans and Americans to mobilize around the defence of Taiwan, a distant and uninteresting spot for the majority of Westerners? For instance, it is hard to see how a European could ever feel uncomfortable with the prospect of seeing Taiwan be reintegrated into China, especially when Portugal and the United Kingdom have just returned Macao and Hong Kong to the Chinese authorities.
Yet, the referendum was surely an headache for Western leaders. Shui-bian’s plans didn’t work out this time, as not enough votes were cast on both questions proposed. No matter how legitimate and democratic a referendum may sound to Westerners, a clear vote for independence on the part of the Taiwanese would have been a nightmare for both the US and Europe. If urged to choose between regional stability and the defence of democracy, it would be hard for both to maintain their current ambiguous stance. For the US, in particular, having to choose between a developing relation with its ‘strategic competitor’ China and the defence of a close ally would be terrible. But for an Administration that advocates helping democratic countries as a necessary first step for the democratization of wider regions, Taiwan should always be a priority.
Apart from identifying some 40 remaining corpses, the big question regarding the recent terrorist attacks in the Spanish capital concerns naming those responsible for it. Although Aznar and his cabinet have swiftly pointed their fingers to Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (commonly known as ETA) – no doubt due to political reasons –, it is still difficult to claim that this has been ETA’s work, some kind of a «masterpiece attack» on Spanish nationalism. And there sure are reasons for this uncertainty, as the train plot bears both the ‘rationale’ hallmark of ETA and the operational fingerprint of Al-Qaïda.
If you’re a Spanish citizen or if you’ve lived in Spain for some time and you witness an attack of this sort, it’s hard not to let ETA come to your mind almost immediately. After all, and despite ETA’s widely announced logistical and operational weaknesses, it has had enough power these last years so as to pave the way for a right-wing majority at La Moncloa (a majority which will undoubtedly be confirmed this Sunday). Aznar and his Popular Party know well just how powerful ETA is as an electoral asset, and that’s why it seems almost natural that Rajoy, Acebes and their counterparts have produced such inflamed verbal assaults on the Basque separatist group, blaming it for the massacre. Simultaneously, Spanish newspapers reported that FM Ana Palacio had instructed all Spanish diplomats to publicly support this theory.
Of course, one could just discard these efforts as pure electoral engineering, if it wasn’t for the disturbing fact that a consensus was also reached at the United Nation’s Security Council in order to pass resolution 1530/04, by which its members condemned the attacks and clearly blamed ETA for them (were you among those who once said the UN knows how to deal with terrorism?). The search for electoral gains on the part of the Popular Party being one decisive reason, the fact is there remains a strong feeling these reactions owe something to ingenuity.
The tactical considerations that analysts have been producing since last Thursday are extremely interesting, though inaccurate in their majority – and here lies the greatest paradox of all. If one gathers analysts’ views on Madrid’s feast of terror, the latter can be seen either as a sign of despair on the part of a weakened and radicalized ETA, surely preceding the end of its terrorist actions; or as a sign of Al-Qaïda’s great flexibility and utmost vitality, with an indisputable capacity to hit one of Europe’s biggest and most charismatic capital cities even in the midst of an all-out war on terror. One attack, two opposite conclusions being drawn.
That fact that the attacks were carried out on March 11th or that a tape with verses of the Coran has been found by the Spanish police inside a van near the place where it all happened seem to have lent some credibility to the theory of a radical Islamic attack. The message sent by the Abu Afs al-Masri Brigades to the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper in London seemed to take that possibility further. Is it worth following the Islamic trail, though? The answer is: definitely. The Europeans seem to have a problem dealing with the possibility of an Al-Qaïda attack on its soil. So far and apart from September 11th, major radical Islamic actions had taken place only in distant scenarios, such as Southeast Asia or the Middle East – one could think of a blown-up disco in Indonesia, but could never imagine seeing a Parisian conference centre turned into wreckage. The fact is, and this is a reality Europe should start accepting, each one of us Europeans has Islamic sleeping cells in the neighbourhood. Perhaps they’re not much of a tangible reality, but that’s no excuse for you not knowing what kind of a phenomenon you’re dealing with.
French police once managed to avoid a bloodbath at Strasbourg’s «Marché de Noël» by dismantling an Islamic cell operating in the city; British police were once successful in detaining Islamic militants which were on the verge of using ricin in an attack whose consequences we can only imagine. One day, police forces (all their efforts notwithstanding) will eventually fail in their mission of anticipating a major attack in the heart of Europe – or perhaps they just did, in Madrid.
Among those victims already identified by the Spanish Government stands a man named Osama el-Amrati. The Madrid attacks as the place of one Osama’s death and another Osama’s rebirth – now there’s a disturbing vision for Kantian Europeans.