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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”