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.

With her American tour underway this week, Taiwanese presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is showing Washington and her many supporters in Taiwanese-American communities across the country that the island’s anti-unification opposition party is back. And that it is stronger than ever.

This may come as a surprise to those who remember how decisively Taiwan’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou, won election in 2008, and how enthusiastically his victory was received in Washington. But public opinion polls show that Ms. Tsai, Taiwan’s first woman presidential candidate and a former vice-premier, is in a close race with President Ma, who is standing for a second term with pro-China policies as his signature achievement. Her steady leadership of the island’s opposition for the past three years and her competence in public policy have revived her party’s political prospects sooner than anyone had predicted.

The implications of this are reassuring. For one thing, it is encouraging news that East Asia’s most besieged democracy has not been quashed by anti-democratic regression at home or by intimidation from China.

More practically, this is an opportunity for policy makers in Taipei and across the Pacific to re-think their working premise that politically dubious accommodations of Beijing are necessarily the best way to manage stable and mutually beneficial relations over the long haul. A more principled approach is beckoning, even if Beijing is not yet ready to listen.

Disappointing benefits from China accommodation

Tsai and her band of aspiring office holders are on the front line of this debate. After four years of broad accommodation of Beijing under Mr. Ma, the received benefits have been deeply disappointing. Yes, the atmospherics between Taiwan and China have improved and the number of official visitors has exploded, giving more scope to greater mutual understanding.

But little has changed on the ground. Despite a modest boost in revenues from Chinese tourism, the net benefits to Taiwan’s economy have been minimal and arguably a setback in the longer term.

In the world of diplomacy, little has been achieved for expanding international participation beyond a hotly disputed observer status in an obscure UN-related agency. The military build-up across the Taiwan Strait continues unabated. In general, Beijing has been unrelenting, demanding more cooperative behavior from Taipei than it is willing to reciprocate.

Moreover, the political risks of playing into Beijing’s declared strategy of economic integration as the first step toward eventual annexation look less and less acceptable to the Taiwanese public, which judges the Chinese government more harshly than ever, according to recent opinion polls. Even Ma has recognized the risks involved, slowing the pace of cross-strait initiatives during the past year as he saw expectations were raised too high and his policies over-sold.

Tsai in Washington: return of her party is inevitable

Meanwhile, as Tsai proclaimed in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington this week, the return to power of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is inevitable, or very nearly so. In the absence of a credible third party, the DPP’s re-emergence as a credible alternative is a natural response to popular disillusionment with the current leadership and the lackluster performance of the government led by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party.

Whether Tsai and her party can regain the presidency and/or win a majority in the legislature in 2012 or some later date remains a question. The power of incumbency in Taiwan is amplified by a government-influenced news media and the Nationalists’ large advantage in campaign resources. But Taiwanese voters can discount these factors as well as any informed electorate, and they are used to acting independently of foreign preferences, especially those from across the Taiwan Strait.

China needs “to understand that changes of government in Taiwan....have become something rather normal, because of democracy,” Tsai told the BBC News earlier this summer. “China has to look ahead, and with new leadership and a more sophisticated DPP, I think China will have to look at the matter from a fresh perspective.”

While Taiwan’s elections turn mainly on domestic issues, as in other democracies, it is Tsai’s China policy that most concerns outsiders. On this, she and her party have become more nuanced as the election draws closer.

As a strong critic of the government’s Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, one of more than a dozen pacts signed with Beijing since 2008, Tsai has accepted the outsized popularity of the agreement with the island’s business community. Even though its benefits are more symbolic than real, and important phases of the framework have yet to be negotiated, Tsai says the DPP has no plans to abruptly end the controversial pact. Instead, she deftly proposes to adjust it, according to democratic procedures, if it is found wanting.

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.”

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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