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Politics in the Strait

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: March 24, 2008

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Taiwan’s voters returned a Nationalist to office who promises a less confrontational approach to relations with mainland China. On Saturday, the Nationalists won by a landslide (LAT), and voters also rejected a controversial referendum on Taiwan’s status (Reuters) in the United Nations, bringing praise and relief from Beijing (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

Ma Ying-jeou, now president-elect, should find his program of closer ties with Beijing (WashPost) met with enthusiasm in parliament, already controlled by his Nationalist, Kuomintang (KMT) party, which dominated parliamentary elections in January.

Ma’s election ends over a decade in which the prospect of a national referendum on independence has caused serious friction, at times escalating to military saber-rattling, across the Taiwan Strait. Problems, including varying definitions of what Taiwan’s status actually is, will still plague cross-strait relations. Yet experts believe conditions exist for improvement.

From the United States’ perspective, the election results are good news, writes CFR’s China expert Adam Segal in a New York Times blog. He says over the last few years of DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s administration, there was “a real fear in Washington that the United States could unwittingly be drawn into a conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait.” Under President Chen, who pushed for the island’s independence and limiting economic ties with China, Taiwan has had a cool relationship with Washington, a struggling economy, and fraught relations with China. President Bush welcomed the results saying it “provides a fresh opportunity for both sides to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences.” CFR’s Daily Opinion Roundup features editorials hailing Taiwan’s elections as a model for democracy for China and the region.

Economic links between the two countries are already on the rise. In fact, Taiwan’s dependence on the mainland has increased. According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, China is Taiwan’s biggest export market and its preferred foreign investment destination. In 2007 bilateral trade between the countries was $125 billion, an increase of 15.4 percent over 2006. Economic issues and a desire to maintain the status quo with China emerged as the overriding concerns of voters ahead of the election. In a CFR meeting in 2006, as Taipei’s mayor, Ma had emphasized the need to keep the status quo and said China and Taiwan should have a consensus of what constitutes status quo. Taiwan’s stock markets rallied (BBC) after Ma’s victory with investors responding favorably to his promise of establishing better economic ties with China.

But a policy of greater cross-strait cooperation from Taipei needs to be met with a similar approach from China, writes Alan D. Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center. He says China’s failure to do so “will risk destroying the opportunity that now exists to stabilize cross-Strait relations for a considerable time to come.”

The KMT win in presidential elections may reflect the public’s desire for less provocative policies toward the mainland, but it does not diminish Taiwan’s desire (WSJ) to be treated as a sovereign state for the foreseeable future, writes Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute. “If China can accept that important but limited improvement in relations, we shall see a period of welcome calm in the Taiwan Strait.” Following China’s crackdown on pro-independence protests in Tibet, rhetoric from both candidates made it clear that they were not willing to compromise on what they saw as the island’s sovereignty (Taipei Times).

A recent opinion poll in Taiwan by U.S.-based Zogby International notes 63 percent of respondents viewed their country as a sovereign and independent country and 71 percent described themselves as Taiwanese. Only 5 percent said they were “Chinese.” The growing Taiwanese “identity” shift may also increase the voice for de jure independence, writes CFR Military Fellow Captain Jeffrey A. Harley in the Harvard International Review. Now is the time, he argues, for the United States to resolve its existing policy ambiguities in its relations with Taiwan and China.

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