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.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

“China has a strong desire to push Ma to engage in political talks in his second term,” says Nathan Liu, an international relations professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. “But obviously there are about 46 percent who do not endorse Ma’s performance in his first term, and that’s something he needs to take into account.”

China may seek a formal accord on the two-way negotiations, analyst's say, committing each side to recognizing itself as part of just one China, not separate countries. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party prefers a framework with more support from Taiwan’s public and international law.

“How can you negotiate with someone else if you don’t know your own name?” asks pro-Tsai voter Ying-chi Da-lai of suburban Taipei. “We don’t want to confuse issues. We’re Taiwan here and it’s China over there.”

Talks and trade

Beijing is unlikely to accept Tsai’s idea as it implies too much Taiwanese autonomy. Under Ma, the two sides may also begin working on a formal peace accord to enshrine a reduction of military tension since 2008. China’s Communist Party is expected to discuss other political issues privately with the Nationalists.

Taiwan officials say they expect to sign an investment deal with China this year and that the two sides will cut thousands of trade tariffs.

The United States congratulated Ma on his reelection within hours. The US supports closer ties between Taiwan and China. A month earlier the US announced Taiwan’s candidacy for visa waivers, a popular move pushed hard by the Ma government, following a chain of high-level visits from Washington.

Those visits were rarer under more China-hostile Taiwanese leaders, such as Chen Shui-bian between 2000 and 2008.

Washington, a fellow democracy and major arms supplier, is Taiwan’s staunchest informal ally but wants to improve relations with China for regional security reasons and the interests of American business.

Peace between the two allows Washington to focus on the Middle East, North Korea, and islets in the South China Sea disputed by six governments around the region.

The United States would worry again if the two sides got too close, extending China’s influence in the world and compromising US economic interests, says Mark Harrison, senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania’s School of Asian Languages and Studies in Australia.

“The US has enough trouble with hotspots all over the world,” Mr. Liu says. “They don’t really need another trouble spot in East Asia.”

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