On Friday, something quite important may have happened. At the legislature, party leaders agreed to put a fascinating item on the agenda for Tuesday. The DPP and TSU will introduce a resolution limiting what Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi can say or do at his upcoming meeting with Chinese counterparts. Of course, the DPP and TSU don’t have the power to control the agenda. Critically, the KMT party leaders and Speaker Wang also agreed to let this resolution come before the floor. The details of the resolution can be found in this story, and, if you read Chinese, these two stories from the front pages of yesterday’s and today’s Liberty Times are a bit more detailed.
The Taipei Times story is on the bottom of page 3, and the United Daily News and China Times buried this story even further back. They might be correct. After all, it is quite possible that Tuesday’s legislative business will go unexpectedly slowly and this resolution will never make it off the calendar. However, I think the Liberty Times’ front page treatment is probably appropriate, and not just because it meshes with their ideological preferences. This story might be significant in several ways.
First, this resolution is a clear signal to cross-strait negotiators (on both sides) not to expect any major breakthroughs. The elected politicians are telling the negotiators not to go too far. They are also telling China not to bother pressing Taiwan for too much at this time. Even if Minister Wang publicly supports something that China wants, such as the One China framework, they have been publicly notified that this position will be repudiated by the legislature as soon as he gets back. It might be wiser to wait for another day than to force Taiwan to openly disavow a position. This direct effect on cross-straits talks is probably the most important angle to the story. To me, however, it is the least interesting.
Second, this resolution might reflect an adjustment in the relations between the executive and legislative branches. In a sense, this is an effort to wrest control of a vital policy area away from the executive branch. Before, the president had been in charge of deciding how fast relations with China could develop. The legislature has just asserted its prerogative by setting the outer limits of what is acceptable. That is, they are suggesting that the executive branch can take care of the little details, but the broad vision shall be determined by the legislature.
The closest parallel I can think of comes from American politics. In the early 1970s, the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular, and then Nixon ordered a major bombing campaign into Laos and Cambodia. Congress was fed up with the president’s unilateral use of the American military and passed the War Powers Resolution of 1973, putting limits on the president’s power to use military force. Congress argued that the US constitution gave them the right to declare war, so the president should not be able to have undeclared wars. Every president since 1973 has replied that the resolution is unconstitutional, since it inhibits a president’s power to act as commander in chief. The important point for us is that the power to use the American military had always been considered as one of the major pillars of presidential power. In 1973, the legislature tried to pry some of that power away from the executive branch by asserting that they, not the president, had the right to determine the broad outlines (which major military conflicts the US would be involved in) of that area of power. The current resolution in Taiwan is not quite so dramatic. For one thing, the proposal is for a specific context, not for a general new law. The resolution will only apply to this visit by Minister Wang. It does not apply to other delegations that might negotiate in other places or times. Even so, if the legislature passes the resolution next week, it will be asserting both some very concrete limits for Wang’s upcoming trip AND a more general right to set such limits whenever it sees fit. I expect that the Ma administration will make at least a minor statement rejecting the legislature’s right to determine the basic course of cross-strait relations.
Third, this story lifts the covers just a little and gives a peek at the KMT’s intense intra-party conflagration. The war between Ma and Wang is still running hot, even if it isn’t on the front pages these days. Ma is still pursuing the court case, and there is a good chance that Wang won’t be able to finish out this term. One of the main complaints from the Ma side about Wang is that he uses inter-party negotiations to get everything he wants. Here again, the item was put on the agenda in inter-party negotiations, chaired by Wang. In the Liberty Times stories, Wang says clearly that the KMT reps didn’t want to sign on to the original proposal. It was only after some give and take that they agreed. If you read between the lines just a little bit, you can see a resolution that Wang could have easily killed, had he so wished. Instead, he kept the negotiations alive, cajoled the various sides to give a bit, and produced an agreement that President Ma will absolutely hate. Wang may genuinely have different preferences than Ma, but it probably didn’t hurt that Ma is trying to politically assassinate him and that this resolution will place humiliating and potentially significant limitations on Ma’s executive branch.
Beyond the feud between Ma and Wang, this also exposes a rift between Ma and the overall KMT legislative caucus. Putting these preemptive restrictions on Minister Wang basically equates to an admission by the KMT legislative caucus that it doesn’t trust him. You rarely hear of this sort of thing, except in divided government. The back channels of communication must not be working very well if the KMT caucus feels it has to send a public message. President Ma and Minister Wang will hear the message, but so will all the voters. One part of the KMT is telling the voters that there is a possibility that another part of the party might do something crazy and they are taking steps to ensure that doesn’t happen. Unified parties don’t do things like this because that telling voters that powerful people in your party are irresponsible is a good way to lose elections.
I’m increasingly persuaded by the argument that Ma is driven by his historical legacy. To use a more provocative phrase, Ma might have Nobel Fever. If he does, he will want to do big things with China before he leaves office. Rather than waiting for the time to be ripe, he needs to act now in the two years he has left. He can probably already see the shadow of the lame duck creeping up on him, so he has no time to waste. The rest of the party has a much longer timeline on China. Their immediate priority is electoral. They need to cozy back up to public opinion before this year’s elections, and the public is not clamoring for dramatic new agreements with China right now. This puts Ma at odds with the mainstream of his party, and it seems that the mainstream might be taking precautions to prevent him from pursuing his goals at the expense of theirs.
The resolution might never reach the floor, though if it does I think it will pass. There are a few extremist legislators who won’t mind going on record as wanting to allow Minister Wang (and the whole ROC government) to support One China or One Country, Two Regions. However, most will be want to be closer to the median voter. If they have to vote, they’ll vote for the resolution. Even if Ma’s allies can mobilize enough support to keep the resolution off the floor, just by putting this item on the agenda the KMT caucus has sent a warning shot to the administration.