Taiwan vote may trip up US and China

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – In their presidential and legislative elections to be held simultaneously on January 14, the Taiwanese will either re-elect Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) or opt for a somewhat weighty change.

Presidential candidate and chairwoman of the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen runs neck-and-neck with the incumbent in opinion polls, while James Soong of the People’s First Party (PFP) trails far behind.

Needless to say, Beijing is all for Ma. But Washington is also keeping its fingers crossed firmly for him because during his term, Ma, much unlike his pro-independence predecessors Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, didn’t complicate Sino-US relations in the slightest.

From fears that China’s military leaders could gain at the expense

of civilian ones to Beijing’s supposed ability to keep North Korea from launching missiles toward South Korea or Japan – Washington isn’t short of reasons for cross-Taiwan-Strait relations and in turn Sino-US ties to stay on an amicable and predictable trajectory.

But a leadership change in Taipei is seen by many as a potential spoiler. Beijing is deeply suspicious of Tsai, who in the mid-1990s constructed an infamous doctrine that saw China and Taiwan’s ties as a “special state-to-state” relationship, bringing the Taiwan Strait to the brink of war. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) highest echelons have already said that cross-Strait business would not go on as usual if Taiwan’s next leader doesn’t recognize that the island is part of China.

Beijing wants to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. Threats of war shortly before Taiwanese elections have led to the exact opposite outcome Beijing had wanted. This time around, the Chinese have allegedly asked the Barack Obama administration, privately, for help. It seems very much as if the request was granted. Ma’s domestic opponents see conspiracies at work and listed supposed examples for hidden US intervention in the island’s presidential election on Saturday to the benefit of the easy-to-handle incumbent fearing for his re-election.

  • In September, when Tsai visited the US, an anonymous American official told the Financial Times that Tsai failed to convince the Obama administration that she would handle cross-Strait relations well. The leak delivered a blow to Tsai’s domestic standing as it was suggested that she lacks the ability to master the delicate and crucial balance between US and China.
  • Washington allegedly has made efforts to counter rampant rumors that affected Ma negatively, such as speculation the Obama administration wants to abandon the island to serve US national interest better. Last year saw more high-ranking US officials visit Taipei than the past few years combined. Previously, Washington had kept official visits to Taipei at a minimum as they implied Taiwanese statehood and in turn complicated Sino-US relations.
  • Weeks before the polls, the island was nominated for inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program. This move, which just could have been announced shortly after the elections for the sake of fairness, is regarded as a major shot in Ma’s arm as US visa requirements for Taiwanese – unfavorable compared to citizens of other developed countries in the region – have long gnawed at islanders’ self-esteem.
  • Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC), which advises the president on security issues, in early January published a press release on a briefing by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the US’s de facto embassy, on the latest US Defense Strategic Guidance. That the briefing took place isn’t unusual, but in the past details of such talks were kept largely secret. That the AIT didn’t protest against the NSC making the whole story public is seen as proof of a tactical agreement between the two in order to strengthen Ma.

    Yet, despite the alleged US interventions, with just days left before the polls, no sound observer could confidently rule out that the eventual prospect of Washington and Beijing eventually facing a president Tsai.

    To handle her pro-independence predecessors, Washington crafted and brought to perfection the “dual deterrence” tactic.

    According to the concept, the US encourages one side until it become too self-confident while at the same time ignoring the other, until it feels just about to be abandoned. Then, the direction of US sympathy is abruptly shifted. In this way an ambiguous balance has been struck. Neither Beijing nor Taipei can be sure to what extent the US would interfere in a conflict, so the two avoid embarking on reckless adventures in the first place.

    According to political scientists interviewed by Asia Times Online, the policy of “dual deterrence” will remain in place and has never been dropped – though since Ma took office in 2008 it has been barely noticeable.

    “The US policy will not change whoever wins in Taiwan. It is in US national interest to have this policy, as it is about avoiding a cross-Strait confrontation becoming a conflict involving the US and the People’s Republic of China,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.

    Also John F Copper, a Stanley J Buckman professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, holds that very little if any change in US policy would occur if Ma wins the election, and that a Tsai win also wouldn’t necessarily lead to dramatic turns and twists.

    “If Tsai wins, the US will issue her a warning, perhaps more than one. The Department of State will certainly remind her of America’s one-China policy, how unhappy the US was with Chen Shui-bian, and furthermore that she should expect a very negative reaction if she pursues independence,” Copper said.

    Anyway, Tsai will almost certainly seek to avoid turning US-Taiwan relations testy, according to Copper, and he furthermore pointed out that Tsai didn’t mention the issue of Taiwanese independence during her campaign but instead repeatedly stated that she wants better relations with China.

    “I think she means it and needs it. Taiwan’s economy has slowed recently, and Tsai would not want to oversee a sharp downturn or recession as Chen Shui-bian experienced after he was in office less than a year [2000]. She no doubt realizes that she must cooperate with the KMT in the Legislative Yuan [Taiwan’s legislature] and pursue policies that will facilitate economic stability and growth.”

    As for China’s leadership, it could take some action in the form of economic pressure if things run counter to its wishes on the island, Copper said.

    “China can do serious damage to Taiwan economically, but I don’t think it wants to. It’s unlikely that Chinese leaders see that as wise or in China’s national interest unless there is a declaration of independence or markedly increased Japanese influence [over Taiwan]. They feel that time is on their side, and Tsai’s win wouldn’t alter that.”

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