Taiwan losing interest in US politics

For Global Times http://www.globaltimes.cn/

With less than two months to go until the next US presidential election, which will pit the incumbent Barack Obama against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a subtle yet remarkable change in Taiwanese perception of the historic event is becoming apparent.

While in past American electoral run-ups, Taiwan’s pundits were always very busy pondering on which candidate would bring about what for the island, this time around either side of the political specter seems conspicuously indifferent. This shows two things: firstly, to the Taiwanese, the topic of independence is off the table and secondly, the significance of Washington’s role in cross-Straits relations decreases by the day.

In the last few decades, whenever someone who was perceived by Taiwan’s political establishment as a “hawk” was fielded as a presidential candidate, those among the Taiwanese who favored independence crossed their fingers. According to their school of thought, the harder a US administration is willing to take on the mainland, the more Taiwan becomes a bargaining chip in Sino-US relations so that cross-Straits rapprochement, which they want to avoid like the plague, can be obstructed.

But neither those in Taiwan politics who made it their mission to stay on good terms with the mainland, namely the Kuomintang (KMT), felt comfortable cheering for the allegedly dovish candidate. This was because the KMT, in order to counter its formerly strong pro-independence opponents, needed to have Taipei get as many concessions as quickly possible at the negotiation tables. To that end, having a “hawk,” usually a Republican, running the White House was seen as the better deal.

But the days where Taiwan pushed for the Republican candidate by default are gone. It doesn’t matter anymore to Taiwan who the next US president will be. This is partly because the island’s pro-independence forces have turned from a vocal minority to a mere fringe, but mainly because of the spectacular institutionalization of cross-Straits ties. Ever since the KMT regained power in 2008, Taiwan and the mainland have signed 18 agreements in negotiations in which the US played little part.

That the US government generally fails to get a firm grasp on talks across the Taiwan Straits is increasingly lamented in private by former US officials and experts visiting Taipei. The diminishing US influence in Taiwan is perceivable not only to the KMT government but, of course, also to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP is very clear that if it ever governs Taiwan again, it will be much harder for it to hide behind the US when dealing with the mainland.

It is precisely this perception that accelerates the speed at which the US has morphed into a mere bystander in cross-Straits relations. Pre-US election analysis is largely absent from the island’s TV screens and in its magazines and newspapers due to the US’ new position.

While the campaign rhetoric of Romney leaves no doubt that he plans to confront the mainland, it has become an obviously different matter for Taiwan’s two main political parties. Their real game now is how to maintain an amicable working relationship with the mainland, thereby maximizing the benefits for both. If a confrontational mainland course of any future US president were to complicate that working relationship gravely, it would come at the expense of whoever is in power in Taipei.

The Taiwanese public wants that working relationship with the mainland to remain intact, as clearly shown in the island’s last presidential and legislative elections earlier this year. Therefore, the Taiwanese have stopped rooting for a particular side’s candidate, and – unless he or she wins and chooses to artificially mess up cross-Straits relations to the detriment of the island’s well-being – it is foreseeable that they will eventually stop paying much attention to the issue altogether.

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