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Breathing easier on Taiwan: Elected president has improved China ties

Posted: January 19, 2012 - 12:21am  |  Updated: January 19, 2012 - 1:10am

Ma Ying-jeou, the incumbent president of Taiwan, has now won his hard-fought battle for re-election. What does it mean for the United States?

To state it plainly, Ma’s victory means one less headache for any U.S. administration, Democratic or Republican. China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. The United States ended its formal treaty commitment to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack in 1979, but it continues to be committed to the island’s security through legislation. Ma is seen as the candidate least likely to provoke China or otherwise put the U.S. in an uncomfortable position. But the final vote tally indicates it may not be all smooth sailing for Ma or cross-strait relations.

Ma garnered only 51.6 percent of the vote this time; his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, got 45.6 percent. In 2008, the charismatic Ma helped the Kuomintang, or KMT, return to power in a landslide election by promising to reduce tensions with China after the pro-independence DPP had held the presidency for eight years. The drop in popular support this time around could be attributed to a third-party challenger, a sluggish economy or some lingering apprehensions about closer ties to Beijing.

The United States had pushed Taiwan hard to democratize in the 1980s. But with democratization came complications, the DPP stand on China being one of them. The DPP supports Taiwan’s de jure independence from the mainland — a move that would be guaranteed to trigger a Chinese military attack. Despite promises to behave prudently after gaining power in 2000, the DPP orchestrated a series of “surprises” that included changing the name of Taiwan’s state corporations (from “China” to “Taiwan,” for example), shelving documents outlining a road map to reunification with China, holding a series of controversial referendums and making repeated calls for a new Taiwanese constitution. Perhaps most provocative, however, was a noisy and quixotic campaign to join the United Nations as a new country, Taiwan, rather than “return” as the Republic of China, as it has previously tried to do. These moves led to an escalation in tensions with Beijing and increased prospects that the U.S. might become embroiled in a conflict with China.

Following Ma’s election in 2008, relations between Taipei and Beijing warmed. The two sides signed a free-trade pact, opened direct flights between major cities, signed an agreement enabling swarms of mainland Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan and agreed informally to a “diplomatic truce” whereby each would stop trying to bribe the other’s diplomatic allies into aligning with their respective sides. More than 1 million Taiwanese now live on the mainland. There is talk of a formal peace agreement to end the civil war. In short, relations between Taipei and Beijing are at their best since 1949.

To be sure, Tsai went to great lengths to appear moderate. She even pledged to expand linkages with Beijing. But Tsai refused to publicly renounce independence as an option for Taiwan. She also opposed the “1992 consensus,” an understanding whereby Taipei and Beijing agreed that there is “one China” but with each interpreting what that means. (The arrangement enables them to talk to each other.)

Tsai’s position prompted one unnamed U.S. official to tell the Financial Times that Washington had “distinct doubts” about Tsai’s ability to maintain stable relations with Beijing. The comment sparked outrage among DPP supporters, who complained that the U.S. was interfering in Taiwan’s domestic politics.

The U.S. stance, however, should not have taken any informed observer by surprise. After all, the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy proclaims that “we will continue to encourage continued reduction in tensions between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.” And this is why Washington welcomes Ma’s reelection. The chances that Ma will continue to reduce tensions with Beijing are considered greater than Tsai’s prospects to achieve that goal.

It is likely that relations between Taipei and Beijing will continue to improve during Ma’s second term. But one should not jump to the hasty conclusion that Taiwan no longer needs U.S. support. Rather, the Obama administration should comply fully with the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act — the 1979 law that guides America’s unofficial relations with Taiwan. Continued U.S. military and political support will help Taipei negotiate with Beijing from a position of strength. Taiwan is the first multiparty democracy in more than 5,000 years of Chinese history; supporting it is well worth the effort.

• Hickey is director of the graduate program in global studies at Missouri State University. He was in Taiwan as an election observer at the invitation of the government.

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