Could Taiwan's relationship with China deteriorate after elections?

Taiwan votes for a president this week. As the US tries to improve ties with China without isolating Taiwan, sustaining an ongoing thaw in China-Taiwan relations could help.

By , Correspondent

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    Democratic Progressive Party's Presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen stands with supporters during a presidential campaign rally in Chiayi County, Taiwan, Tuesday. Taiwan will hold its presidential election on Saturday.
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As Taiwanese prepare to pick a president this week, the traditional hot-button issue of what to do with their 60-year foe China has cooled in the final stages of campaigning. Instead, candidates are bickering more about local issues, to the relief of Washington.

Tension between Taiwan and China will continue, especially if challenger Tsai Ing-wen of the traditionally anti-Beijing Democratic Progressive Party wins. But neither a win by Ms. Tsai nor China-friendly incumbent Ma Ying-jeou is likely to see a return to the pre-2008 prospect of war between China and Taiwan.

“If Tsai wins, there will be a lot of friction, but there will not be conflict,” says Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence. “A reversal of cross-Strait engagement is not really in the cards.”

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Washington would welcome a continued thaw as it tries to improve ties with China without isolating Taiwan. The US government is bound by a 1979 congressional act to support Taiwan's defense but wants to get along with Beijing so it reaps the long-term economic and trade benefits expected from the Chinese economy. 

But that doesn’t mean problem solved. China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. It has not renounced the threat of force to pursue reunification if peaceful means fail.

That stance hangs over Tsai’s party, which has traditionally pushed for independence with China. In the mid-1990s chill, China test-fired missiles into waters near Taiwan after then-President Lee Teng-hui advocated Taiwan’s independence.

And more recently, former President Chen Shui-bian – who governed from 2000-2008 and was backed at the time by Tsai’s party – outraged Beijing with his unsuccessful pursuit of constitutional independence for Taiwan, fanning fear that cast China as a major election issue.

For both presidents, dialogue with China was all but impossible.

What if Ma were to win?

But Mr. Ma of the Nationalist Party began engaging China after taking office in 2008. He has brokered regular talks that have produced 16 agreements on items such as investment, tourism, and direct flights, a multibillion-dollar boon to the economy.

Taiwan expects an investment protection deal with China and thousands of two-way tariff cuts if Ma wins a second four-year term. Beijing is lobbying through backchannels for political dialogue as well, political analysts say.

And Ma’s campaign executive director, King Pu-tsung, spoke at a news conference about a controversial peace accord. “He’s saying that within the next 10 years, everyone should face the question [of a peace accord with China] and consider that question.”

Other political items that have taken back stage recently to more local talk include removal of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan and the island’s role in international NGOs that are controlled by Beijing’s allies.

What if Tsai won?

Tsai, a former vice premier, meanwhile, advocates trade talks with China but only if it recognizes Taiwan’s autonomy. She rejects Ma’s dialogue framework, a 1992 agreement that both sides see themselves as part of a single China but on their own terms.

Economic powerhouse China says it cannot accept a dialogue framework that casts the two sides as separate countries. Two countries could mean fewer spoils for China – an opposition victory may initially stall new economic and trade agreements and erode existing ones, analysts say.

“We’ve got to see what happens in terms of dialogue,” says Li Peng, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University in China.

“China has said that otherwise the economic cooperation framework agreement will run into very realistic issues,” says Mr. Li, citing a two-way 2010 trade pact that cut tariffs on about 800 items as an example. “In terms of people-to-people ties, they won’t get cut off but they will be affected.”

China is expected to be patient, as the Communist government has invested four years in building relations through economic links. It also faces more pressing issues such as domestic social unrest and a possible economic slowdown. 

Despite what analysts say about a Tsai win possibly rocking the boat with China,Tsai's  campaign spokeswoman Hsiao Bi-khim paints a different picture: “If [Tsai] is elected, the priority would be first to at least stabilize the relationship within the first few months.”

Balancing relations with China

If the trade and economic links established since 2008 were to weaken, it would drain Taiwanese colleges of tuition from Chinese students, and the service sector would dry up as tour buses for mainland Chinese tourists sat idle, economists warn.

The 558 direct flights per week would also lose passengers if trade slowed down.

Taiwanese officials say most people support the post-2008 China policies that help Taiwan’s economy. But a November survey found no fanfare for China itself. China ranked above only North Korea as Taiwanese people’s most disliked country, according to the University of Oklahoma Internet survey of 500 people.

The schism between support for economic gains and popular distrust will guide policy for either party, predicts Joseph Wu, the government’s former head of China affairs and a research fellow at National Cheng Chi University in Taipei.

“If I need to put it in just a few words, it is that we need to have better relations with China and we need to be more careful,” Mr. Wu says.

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