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Taiwan and China to grow closer with Ma's reelection

The reelection of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou heralds closer ties with China, leaving one less trouble spot in East Asia for the US.

By Correspondent / January 16, 2012

Taiwan's re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou attends a news conference to thank supporters and celebrate winning the 2012 presidential election in Taipei, Sunday. The re-election of Taiwan President Ma is a vote of support for his four-year economic rapprochement with China, which has taken annual bilateral trade to some $145 billion and helped cushion the export-led economy from the global downturn.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters

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Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s smooth reelection over the weekend is likely to lead to closer ties with China, which is already on the island’s good side, and allow Washington to relax as it seeks friendly relations with both.

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Mr. Ma won another four years on Saturday with about 51 percent of the vote. China-leery opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen came in second with 46 percent. Voters also gave Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party a 57 percent majority in the Taiwanese parliament.

The presidential outcome, which analysts say shows voters played safe by choosing the incumbent over an opponent whose China and economic policies were murkier, augers a deepening of China-Taiwan ties plus a reduced threat of war.

US officials will turn to more pressing foreign policy issues as long as the two sides keep peace but don’t reunify, political analysts say.

“In a general sense, Washington and Beijing both feel relieved with this election result,” says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “I think from China’s side, Taiwan’s election was a kind of indirect referendum to examine whether their China policy worked. For Washington, it’s a bigger picture. The Taiwan Strait is now proven to be a stable region compared to Korean peninsula and South China Sea.”

In a rainy nighttime victory speech, Ma pledged to step up links with China, which have buoyed Taiwan’s $425 billion export-dependent economy as a massive market and low-cost manufacturing base.

“The people have approved of my setting aside disputes [with China] to strive for peace, turning danger into business opportunities,” he said. “In the next four years, relations will become more harmonious and more interdependent.”

Chinese concessions?

China is likely to work that pledge to the limit, seeking political concessions from Taiwan after the 16 tourism, trade, and transit deals signed since Ma took office in 2008. Those deals benefit primarily Taiwan, but Beijing eagerly signed them in hopes they would advance its goal of political unification.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the Nationalist Party fled to the island. China has not ruled out the use of force, with its much larger military, to bring Taiwan into the fold, though it prefers peaceful means. The Nationalists today back Ma’s presidency.

Ms. Tsai’s camp, which advocates Taiwan’s formal independence from China, wants more distance from Beijing to ensure China doesn’t swallow the island without public approval. Ma, meanwhile, has less of a popular mandate this time around.

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