[VIEWPOINT]Assertive democracy emergesAmericans instinctively regard democracy as a cure all for the world’s ills. Recent events in Northeast Asia remind us, however, that the results of foreign elections often alter the contours of our own foreign policy challenges. This has been especially true of the recent elections in Taiwan and South Korea, which reveal some surprising similarities:
In each case events had a decisive effect on the outcome. In Taiwan a mysterious assassination attempt on Chen Sui-bian produced a last minute shift of momentum in his favor; in South Korea the politically reckless decision by the opposition to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun alienated legions of voters and gave Our Open Party a dramatic victory. In both elections, narrow victories could produce momentous consequences.
In Taiwan, President Chen was returned to office by a margin of only 30,000 votes, while more than 300,000 ballots were disqualified. In South Korea, Our Open Party won a majority of parliamentary seats although it amassed only 38 percent of the votes. In both countries, the election results reinforce an ongoing generational shift of leadership to younger, more nationalistic people, strongly committed to altering established political habits and institutions. In both cases, consequently, these elections could deepen the roots of democratic governance.
Both countries have been actively fostering three key precepts of democratic rule: civilian control of the military, subordination of the bureaucracy to political direction and a parliamentary “golden rule” whereby majority parties treat the opposition with the respect that they know they will want and need when they are in the minority. South Korea will truly test this latter principle now that both the Blue House and the Assembly are for the first time controlled by “progressive” politicians. The DPP in Taiwan will be seeking a parliamentary majority of its own in December.
The outcome of both elections presents the United States with critical challenges. New leaders in both countries reflect strong sentiments that diverge from American policy thinking on key issues. In Taiwan, President Chen’s reelection signals the growth of a clearer sense of Taiwanese identity, and bolsters the government’s resolve to express that identity more clearly in its relationship with China. Though Chen’s margin of victory was narrow, his DPP party garnered a million and half more votes this time than it got four years ago ― a result that China can ill afford to ignore.
In South Korea, the Our Open Party’s representatives regard North Korea as an object of pity rather than a source of dread, see China as a source of inspiration and diplomatic assistance rather than as a powerful potential rival located too close for comfort and appear eager to pursue a foreign policy more clearly differentiated from Washington’s.
It is clear that new leaders in Taipei and Seoul not only have their own ideas about how to manage two enduring legacies of the Cold War ― a divided Korea and the Taiwan issue ― but seem inclined to implement their own policy agendas with less deference to American strategic concerns.
Each presents the United States with challenging dilemmas. In the wake of his reelection, President Chen has signaled his intention to hold additional referendums and has reaffirmed his determination to rewrite the constitution of the Republic of China ― steps certain to arouse Beijing’s ire.
Beijing recognizes that overreactions can prove counter-productive while passivity will simply encourage Taiwan’s leader to further challenge its “red lines.” Hence, China increasingly leans on Washington to dissuade Taipei from taking unilateral steps designed to alter the juridical status quo. This thrusts the United States more directly into the middle of this delicate and dangerous quarrel at a time when President Chen exhibits no desire to make it easy for Washington to finesse a choice between its long-standing fidelity to the principle of self-determination and its strategic interest in equable relations with an emerging Chinese superpower. It also reminds us that Beijing may expect more help from Washington on the Taiwan issue at a moment when we have encouraged them to play a central role in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program.
In Korea, the U.S. alliance has a proud 50-year history of extraordinary success. But today, the divergence in our perceptions of the challenge North Korea presents raises fundamental questions about the durability of the alliance. The recent changes in South Korean politics could exacerbate these divergences at an inopportune moment.
For several years our governments have had difficulty in defining a coordinated strategy for dealing with the North. These difficulties may now grow. All the more reason to remember that considerable common ground exists on which to fashion a joint approach to the six-way talks.
Both governments are comfortable with the multilateral format for negotiations. Both are committed to the same central objective: a complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program. Both have expressed a readiness to find an appropriate response to Pyeongyang’s demands for security assurances and help in meeting its energy needs.
One uncertainty that remains is what leadership President Roh Moo-hyun ― assuming the court voids his impeachment ― will supply on this issue when he resumes his duties, confident of solid domestic political support. Another is whether President Bush, confronting mounting trouble in Iraq, can muster the will to focus thoughtful attention on the North Korean challenge before the U.S. elections in November.
* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.
by Michael H. Armacost