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After free and fair Taiwan elections, democracy is still under China's siege

On Jan. 14, Taiwan re-elected President Ma in a resounding exercise of democracy. But without adjustments to his strategy toward a dominant China, Mr. Ma could leave a legacy of unacceptable options for his successors – and the Taiwanese people.

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For those concerned about the island’s room for maneuver, a second term for Ma deepens apprehension about where their society will find itself after four more years of collaboration and integration with China, Ma’s signature policy issue. The time has come for adjustments in strategy with a more balanced approach and a more honest acknowledgment of the risks.

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Yet in his victory speech on the weekend, the re-elected president appeared to double down on his policies. “In the next four years, cross-strait relations will be even more harmonious, with more mutual trust and less chance of conflict,” Ma promised. “I will give Taiwan a sustainable, peaceful, and stable environment.”

Many observers question whether Ma can deliver such results, since Beijing holds the whip in this relationship. Neither has Beijing conceded any ground in the disputes over sovereignty and massive military deployments against the island. Like Ma’s detailed campaign promises for greater economic prosperity in 2008 that ran afoul of the global recession, these promises could run into even more serious obstacles.

Japanese commentators, among the most astute foreign observers of Taiwan, speculate that in Ma’s second term Beijing will pressure him to sign a peace treaty and urge political negotiations with the goal of eventual unification. These steps would be premature, to say the least, and would expose Ma’s lack of domestic support for moving to a new stage of relations with China that cannot be as easily dressed up to serve mutual interests. Ma denies plans for political talks or a visit to China during his second term. He has even backed away from talk about signing a peace agreement.

AN INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT MA: Taiwan President Ma: Taiwan will not be Hong Kong

But if Ma and the KMT want to move beyond the merely functional commercial relations they have already set up toward more institutionalized ties in a rush of camaraderie with their former adversaries, they must do the hard political work at home to build stronger domestic agreement in an open and democratic spirit. On this, presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen from the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party was right during the campaign in calling for a “Taiwan consensus” as a pre-condition for deepening relations with China.

Especially in dispute in the presidential campaign was Ma’s virtual alliance with Beijing over the “1992 consensus,” which affirms that Taiwan is part of “one China” but allows both sides to define what that means. It remains a question in the minds of many Taiwanese whether this policy is merely an innocuous mantra, as some KMT officials have said privately, or a naive concession to Beijing that carries serious risks, as Ms. Tsai has often said.

It is also troubling that this consensus on “one China” lowers Taiwan’s international profile. This makes the island’s separate political and diplomatic status indistinguishable from the only China that the rest of the world recognizes, namely the People’s Republic of China.

This election cycle shows that the road ahead is fraught with many such challenges. Ironically, these flow directly from the “progress” in cross-strait relations that is often praised for its strategic benefits to the United States and East Asia generally. But the questions and doubts are real and continuing. They have not been put to rest by the election, but rather re-emphasized.

Without some adjustments in policy to address these concerns and reassure the Taiwanese public, Ma could leave a legacy of limited choices and unacceptable options to his successors.

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


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