Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Eric Chu recently led a delegation to the US, visiting academia, think tanks, government agencies and Congress, in a strong effort to rid the KMT of the “pro-China, anti-US” label by pushing the idea that the KMT is in fact “pro-US, forever”.
Speaking at Washington think tank Brookings Institution on 6 June, Chu said the KMT wants peace and stability, but also spoke of preparing for war and self-defence, in a shift from the Ma Ying-jeou era rhetoric that emphasised “dialogue” primarily.
And at the question and answer session, he surprisingly called the 1992 Consensus a “no consensus consensus”, comparing it to the US’s “one China” policy which allows for “creative ambiguity”.
Caught between both sides of the spectrum
These eye-catching statements quickly drew criticisms from both ends of Taiwan’s Blue-Green political spectrum.
On the one hand, Chu’s speech departed from the past rhetoric of the Blue camp and drew backlash from the “deep Blues” fundamentalists, and even across the Taiwan Strait.
For example, pro-China TV commentator and host Joyce Huang Chih-hsien angrily asked if Chu considered himself the chairman of the “ American Kuomintang”, while the New Party also gave Chu the mocking nickname “American Lun (美国伦, using a character in Chu’s Chinese name), questioning if his open talk about self-defence was meant to send Taiwan to the battlefield. Former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin blasted the KMT as a “rotten party throughout the century”, warning that if it abandons the notion of “one China” and becomes a “mini Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)”, the party will dissipate like bubbles.
On the other hand, the Green camp listed many past controversies of the Blue camp politicians to question the credibility of Chu’s statements. The DPP legislator Lin Chun-hsien said Chu had a “split personality”; former Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP) legislator Chen Po-wei urged people not to get taken in; Vincent Chao, a formal diplomat of the DPP, called the KMT a “populist party” and criticised Chu’s speech as having “no depth at all”, drawing counterattacks from Ling Tao and Alfred Lin, former head and the current deputy head of the KMT's Culture and Communications Committee.
The anger of the former group reflects that Chu is not pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and is shifting towards the middle ground of Taiwan’s political spectrum.
Comparing the comments from both sides, the criticisms from the “deep Blues” and mainland China are focused on “what ought to be” as they object to Chu’s stand. The Green camp focuses on “what is”, questioning the gap between the “real” KMT and Chu’s statements.
The anger of the former group reflects that Chu is not pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and is shifting towards the middle ground of Taiwan’s political spectrum. The latter group attacking him for being “untrustworthy” reflects not only the lack of mutual trust between the Blue and Green camps amid their fierce tussling, but also the realisation that, if Chu manages to adjust the KMT’s direction and image, it will put pressure on the Green camp’s supporting basis. These attacks from both sides of the spectrum show that Chu is making a strategically significant move.
Is the KMT ‘pro-US’?
So, is the KMT “pro-US” or “anti-US”? This controversy reflects the changing strategic situation of the KMT in history, the current diversity of positions within the KMT, as well as the selective framing of the various commentators.
In fact, calling the KMT “anti-US” or “pro-US” either way, is a simplification of political identification.
Those who call the KMT “anti-US” mostly focus on the recent period of history where the US-China conflict escalated, and presuppose that anyone in Taiwan should clearly stand with the US to fight against China. They often cite KMT’s hesitation to take sides due to its prioritising peace in the Taiwan Strait, the concerns some of its members have shown about the US pulling out of Afghanistan and not sending troops to Ukraine, and even the “anti ractopamine-containing pork”(mainly imported from the US) referendum the KMT proposed to address the public concerns on food safety, as evidence of how the KMT is “anti-US”.
On the other hand, current KMT chairman Chu and former chairman Johnny Chiang have reiterated that the KMT stands with the US on the side of freedom and democracy. They have cited how President Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (三民主义) was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, and the KMT’s history of fighting alongside the US against fascism during the WWII, and against the expansion of communism during the Cold War.
In fact, calling the KMT “anti-US” or “pro-US” either way, is a simplification of political identification. Most arguments attacking the KMT as anti-US have magnified insignificant matters, creating expanded interpretation out of a few current events, as if only “total obedience” qualifies one as being pro-US. And those who declare that the KMT is “pro-US, forever” have more or less made light of the “tense alliance” of the past KMT leaders with the US, from Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo to Lee Teng-hui.
... Chu's move not only aims to repair the trust with the US, but also sends a clear signal in directing the disoriented KMT.
Nonetheless, looking back at the history of the KMT, in terms of the interconnection between the party's central creeds and the founding spirit of the US, as well as the fact that it fought alongside the US during WWII and the Cold War, both demonstrate that a deep KMT-US alliance did exist. Even the KMT’s engagement with the CCP, which is most criticised by the Green camp, was not initiated until the 1990s when the Cold War ended — long after the US broke the ice with China first in the 1970s.
The historical twist was actually the outbreak of a series of controversies of the Xi’s administration, which drastically escalated the US-China confrontation and reshaped the geopolitical situation, leaving many KMT figures, still nostalgic for the harmonious cross-strait relations of the Ma Ying-jeou era, trapped in a sense of confusion. To this end, Chu's move not only aims to repair the trust with the US, but also sends a clear signal in directing the disoriented KMT.
Chu’s difficulty in accepting KMT as ‘pro-China’
It is not surprising that Chu reiterated the “pro-US” stand, but many would be stunned at his denying that the KMT is pro-China. After all, the KMT founded the Republic of China; its official name is still the “Chinese Nationalist Party”. How could it be distanced from “China”?
However, with the post-Cold War rise of mainland China, the Beijing government gradually monopolised the interpretation of “China” on the international stage.
But the context that Chu has to grapple with is how the implication of the word “China” has changed in the international world. Historically, KMT’s “China” naturally referred to the Republic of China (ROC) that was founded following the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, not the political regime the CCP created in 1949. During the Cold War era, there was also a distinction between the CCP’s “Red China” and the “Free China” KMT ruled in Taiwan.
Even when the two sides across the Taiwan strait started to break ice, they temporarily put the sovereignty dispute on hold and implicitly accepted that “China”, at the very least, could be understood as a “historical civilisation entity” that transcended the political regimes of both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
However, with the post-Cold War rise of mainland China, the Beijing government gradually monopolised the interpretation of “China” on the international stage. When people talk about China, they intuitively understand it as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) founded by the CCP in 1949. Even the firmest defender of the ROC can hardly ignore this linguistic change in the international context.
The variant definition of “China” was merely a matter of sovereignty dispute between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland when the CCP remained on the “reform and opening up” path that led to a closer connection with the world.
Thus, at this time, a statement of being “pro-China” is not just a declaration of one’s cultural and historical identity, but also implies certain value stances and the acceptance of the CCP’s doings.
But in recent years, the Xi administration’s tightening up of domestic social control, its foreign ministry’s wolf warrior diplomacy, the clamping down of Hong Kong’s democracy movements, the PLA incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and the reportages of mass detentions in Xinjiang, all lead to the deterioration of PRC’s international image, thereby relating the word “China” with being autocratic, dictatorial, anti-freedom and disrespectful of human rights.
Thus, at this time, a statement of being “pro-China” is not just a declaration of one’s cultural and historical identity, but also implies certain value stances and the acceptance of the CCP’s doings. In the face of the many controversies that the CCP is embroiled in, even a KMTer with a strong attachment to Chinese culture might find it awkward to declare himself as “pro-China”.
The KMT has long considered the nature of cross-strait relations as a sort of competition between two different institutions, not a division of identity — but when the core institutional values differ too widely, it inevitably infiltrates the processes of identity construction.
Geopolitical security and defence preparedness
Compared with the abstract political statements, Eric Chu’s substantial assessments of the security issues and Taiwan’s defence preparedness apparently attracted more attention.
The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in late February shocked the Taiwanese people and raised international concern over whether the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would invade Taiwan likewise, echoing The Economist's description of Taiwan as the “most dangerous place on earth” last year.
For months, many European and American politicians visited Taiwan. The US government also tried to reshape Taiwan’s defence strategy by adjusting the items of arms procurement, and expressed their concerns about Taiwan’s reforms in military service and reserve mobilisation.
While visiting Japan in May, US President Joe Biden orally confirmed in a press conference that the US would intervene militarily if China attempted to take Taiwan by force, sparking the debate about whether the US was moving towards “strategic clarity”.
Later that month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out that President Biden believed this decade will be “decisive” for US-China relations, which was reminiscent of the warning by Admiral Philip Davidson, former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, of a possible war in the Taiwan Strait before 2027.
Chu is clearly aware of this situation. When he outlined the KMT’s stances in the public speech delivered at the Brookings Institution on 6 June, the first point he made was the importance of strong self-defence for securing peace and stability.
He went on to propose three policy directions, including to “improve capacity and the capability in an asymmetric operation with enhanced joint training and exercise”; to“ prioritise our investment, all our defence procurement acquisition… especially for the coming near term”; and to “enhance to cabinet level to have this reserve mobilisation”. All three points addressed recent US concerns about Taiwan’s defence capabilities and demonstrated his determination and readiness to defend Taiwan.
Chu visited the US State Department and the Washington Headquarter of American Institute in Taiwan soon after, and said in a press interview that the discussions he had with the US this time focused primarily on security issues related to national defence, energy and technology, highlighting that KMT was ready to play the role of a responsible strategic partner.
Chu’s US visit alone won't be enough to win the support and trust of median voters, but it might at least prompt the people to pause and ponder, when they see the KMT being accused of being “pro-Communist, anti-US” the next time.
Yet, Chu stressed: the purpose to prepare for war is to avoid it. His elaboration of the KMT’s stance ends with a vision for Taiwan to become a liberty stronghold, to enhance “intercultural dialogue”, to “preserve as a hope for Chinese democracy” and to “help the West to better understand China”. This is different from the pan-Green’s path of serving Taiwan as a vanguard to fight against China.
Chu said he hopes to make Taiwan “a solution for our time”; clearly, this “solution” is not to be just a bridgehead, but also the bridge itself.
Who can Eric Chu persuade?
Who will be convinced by Chu? To the middle-aged and younger generation of hawkish American national security bureaucrats, Chu’s remarks will at most “loosen” some of the stereotypes formed of the KMT in recent years. His actual doing will still be closely watched. But to the senior officials who have experienced the Cold War and have a deeper understanding of the dialectics of peace and war, Chu’s call for “war avoidance” and “dialogue” could provide a strategic choice different from the pan-Green’s rhetoric of an anti-China coalition.
Back in Taiwan, while Chu faced the wrath from both ends of the spectrum, he also received some encouraging feedback from the pan-Blue reformists and non-partisan intellectuals. Chu’s US visit alone won't be enough to win the support and trust of median voters, but it might at least prompt the people to pause and ponder, when they see the KMT being accused of being “pro-Communist, anti-US” the next time.
This moment of doubt might be exactly what Chu needs at this juncture — a vaccine to boost the KMT’s immunity against the “smearing red” (抹红) tactics by its opponents. This would allow the KMT to return to a fairer competition that focuses on the qualities and actual policies of candidates in future elections.
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