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Opinion

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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Tsai disagrees with "one China" policy

On the ideological differences with Ma, she is less yielding. Along with others in Taiwan from outside the opposition movement, the DPP dissents from the assertion by Ma and the Nationalists that the only way to manage the commercially rich relationship with China and to guarantee peace in the Taiwan Strait is to revert to political formulas from the past. These include a “one China” policy that subsumes Taiwan as a province of China and the so-called “1992 consensus” in which each side holds to it own definition of “one China.”

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Ma inherited these understandings from a Nationalist party agreement reached in 2005 with the Chinese Communist leadership. The main weakness of this party-to-party pact is that it is not backed by approval from Taiwanese citizens or any other domestic consensus. One need not be politically partisan to recognize that enshrining them in formal agreements with China would lock future governments in Taipei into an ambiguous and probably untenable relationship with its predatory neighbor.

So while Tsai and her party clearly share the goals of peace and stability, as outlined in their “Ten Year Policy Outlook” published last month, they dispute the “one China” straightjacket that Ma wants to impose on future governments. Tsai’s call for a “Taiwan consensus” is the DPP’s remedy for this imposition which would require a more deliberative process than Ma has been willing to engage so far. These issues will not be resolved with this election campaign or the next. But the conversations that Tsai and her colleagues have responsibly begun are necessary.

For Washington, whatever its misgivings about the previous DPP government, with its former president now serving a jail sentence on corruption charges, American neutrality in Taiwan’s electoral politics is mandatory. Speculation about ways to “nudge” Ma over the finish line, as one observer proposed recently, are unworthy and short-sighted.

If Tsai and the DPP win in January, Washington will have a committed partner in East Asia that will enhance its reputation and influence in the region. Whatever the outcome, Americans should welcome the normality of routine and peaceful elections in a corner of East Asia that is struggling to hold onto its democracy in difficult circumstances.

Julian Baum is a journalist formerly based in both Taipei and Beijing.

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