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Getting it right in the Taiwan Strait

Taiwan's first female presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is running a close race against incumbent Ma Ying-jeou. Her campaign shows that East Asia’s most besieged democracy has not been quashed by anti-democratic regression at home or by intimidation from China.

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In the world of diplomacy, little has been achieved for expanding international participation beyond a hotly disputed observer status in an obscure UN-related agency. The military build-up across the Taiwan Strait continues unabated. In general, Beijing has been unrelenting, demanding more cooperative behavior from Taipei than it is willing to reciprocate.

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Moreover, the political risks of playing into Beijing’s declared strategy of economic integration as the first step toward eventual annexation look less and less acceptable to the Taiwanese public, which judges the Chinese government more harshly than ever, according to recent opinion polls. Even Ma has recognized the risks involved, slowing the pace of cross-strait initiatives during the past year as he saw expectations were raised too high and his policies over-sold.

Tsai in Washington: return of her party is inevitable

Meanwhile, as Tsai proclaimed in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington this week, the return to power of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is inevitable, or very nearly so. In the absence of a credible third party, the DPP’s re-emergence as a credible alternative is a natural response to popular disillusionment with the current leadership and the lackluster performance of the government led by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party.

Whether Tsai and her party can regain the presidency and/or win a majority in the legislature in 2012 or some later date remains a question. The power of incumbency in Taiwan is amplified by a government-influenced news media and the Nationalists’ large advantage in campaign resources. But Taiwanese voters can discount these factors as well as any informed electorate, and they are used to acting independently of foreign preferences, especially those from across the Taiwan Strait.

China needs “to understand that changes of government in Taiwan....have become something rather normal, because of democracy,” Tsai told the BBC News earlier this summer. “China has to look ahead, and with new leadership and a more sophisticated DPP, I think China will have to look at the matter from a fresh perspective.”

While Taiwan’s elections turn mainly on domestic issues, as in other democracies, it is Tsai’s China policy that most concerns outsiders. On this, she and her party have become more nuanced as the election draws closer.

As a strong critic of the government’s Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, one of more than a dozen pacts signed with Beijing since 2008, Tsai has accepted the outsized popularity of the agreement with the island’s business community. Even though its benefits are more symbolic than real, and important phases of the framework have yet to be negotiated, Tsai says the DPP has no plans to abruptly end the controversial pact. Instead, she deftly proposes to adjust it, according to democratic procedures, if it is found wanting.


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