Bid for peace accord with China backfires on Taiwan's president

Democratic Taiwan supports closer trade and economic ties with China, analysts say, but many prefer the political status quo.

Wally Santana/AP
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou speaks at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum on Nov. 25.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s proposal for a peace accord with long-time rival China has set him back in the polls of a tough election race as it kindles fears of an unwelcome change to the status quo.

During his reelection campaign ahead of January's vote, the president has repeatedly hyped talks over the next 10 years of a first-ever deal with China to pledge not to fight with force. But the prospect of a formal peace deal has backfired on Mr. Ma and his Nationalist Party, reframing debate in the local media just as centrist voters prepare to pick a candidate.

The main opposition party claims a peace accord would be a sellout of self-ruled Taiwan to China. The public supports closer trade and economic ties with China, analysts on the island say, but many prefer the political status quo to preserve their hard-fought democracy.

The prospect of a peace accord with China has become the top political issue ahead of the election, which otherwise has been dominated by local economic and quality-of-life issues. Ma is running against Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the traditionally anti-China Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The last DPP president antagonized both Beijing and the US with his drive for independence from the mainland, and China and Taiwan did not negotiate formally throughout his presidency. 

Decades of conflict

Both China and Taiwan have braced for a conflict since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war, fled to Taiwan, and set up a government there in opposition to the Communist Party, who had taken control of China.

The two jockeyed for control of outlying Taiwan Strait islets in the 1950s through 1970s. Since then, the US and the rest of the world have eyed the strait as a dangerous potential flashpoint in the region. China still claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and has not renounced the threat of force. 

But Beijing stopped mentioning the threat when Ma’s government came to power in 2008, instead making historic offers to set aside old disputes and talk trade as a means of bolstering the island economy while cooling tensions.

Substance of the peace pact?

Taiwanese officials have not discussed the possible content of a peace pact, but experts say that the deal would likely obligate Beijing to reduce its military buildup toward Taiwan – a hot-button issue on the island. Taiwan in turn would agree not to pursue constitutional independence from China, as it talked of doing from the mid-1990s through 2008.

“A peace accord would not likely resolve differences over sovereignty, but would make the relationship more predictable,” says Bonnie Glaser, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If Beijing is confident that Taiwan will not declare independence, then it might be willing to consider drawing down its military buildup opposite Taiwan.”

But critics of the peace deal are dubious. DPP spokesperson Hsiao Bi-khim says that the peace accord is a dangerously “vague” idea that could compromise Taiwan’s military defense. Taiwan already lags China in terms of firepower.

“Who is going to guarantee that peace is sustainable, and would signing a peace accord imply that we are going to reduce our own defense?” Ms. Hsiao says. 

But for Taiwan to actually sign an accord, which was first suggested in 2008, it would require more public support at home and more trust in Beijing than exist today, says Lai Shin-yuan, the Taiwanese government's top policymaker in relations with China.

“The opposition intentionally exaggerated this issue,” she charges. “They don’t have a China policy, so they’re always stirring things up, always making accusations ahead of the election, saying we’re going to sell out Taiwan or unify or whatever.”

Beijing may have pressured Ma into talking up a peace deal, says Peter Gries, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues. Elders in the Nationalist Party, which was formed in China, also like the idea.

“Otherwise, for Ma it’s just a huge faux pas,” Mr. Gries says.

The president’s once comfortable lead in the polls has since mid-October dropped to just one or two percentage points. Some surveys give his closest rival a slight lead ahead of the Jan. 14 election.

China, meanwhile, wants dividends after using its economic might to lift the much smaller Taiwanese economy under Ma’s government. In a trade pact signed last year, for example, China cut export tariffs on 539 items from Taiwan, compared with just 267 granted to exporters shipped from the other side.

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