New Taiwan President Expected to Further Strengthen Relations

Cross-strait tensions decreased dramatically in March when Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou, won the island republic’s presidency by 16 percentage points over his Democratic Progressive Party rival, Frank Hsieh. Having captured a two-thirds majority in January elections for the Taiwanese parliament, the Legislative Yuan, Ma and his KMT after eight years out of power must now make good on campaign promises and please a constituency worried over a sluggish economy, diminished relations with the United States and increased tensions with mainland China.

Cross-strait tensions decreased dramatically in March when Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou, won the island republic’s presidency by 16 percentage points over his Democratic Progressive Party rival, Frank Hsieh. Having captured a two-thirds majority in January elections for the Taiwanese parliament, the Legislative Yuan, Ma and his KMT after eight years out of power must now make good on campaign promises and please a constituency worried over a sluggish economy, diminished relations with the United States and increased tensions with mainland China.

A delegation of election observers organized by JINSA was hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the March 22 election. In addition to observing campaign rallies, polling places and official vote counting and tabulation, the delegation met with leaders of the two main parties contesting the election, as well as government officials, prominent political analysts and academicians during a five-day visit. The discussions focused on the likely effect on relations with the United States and with China of KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou’s landslide victory.

The KMT began ruling Taiwan beginning with the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945-46. That rule tightened after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China in 1949. At first dictatorial, then authoritarian, the KMT gave way to democracy when Taiwan held its first democratic election in 1996. In that year, the KMT held on to both the presidency and control of the Legislative Yuan. But four years later, in 2000, the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Chen Shui-bian narrowly won the presidency even though his party never achieved a parliamentary majority. After its years out of power, today’s KMT is vastly different from the undemocratic movement that ruled the island for the 50 years between 1946 and 1996.

This year’s election marks the third time Taiwan’s president has been directly elected by the people, and the second handover between political parties. Frank Hsieh, the former mayor of Kaohsiung City and a former DPP premier, was easily beaten by Ma who carried more than 7.6 million votes, or over 58.45 percent; Hsieh earned 41.55 percent, or less than 5.5 million votes. Total turnout was 75.5 percent, slightly lower than the 80 percent in the presidential election four years ago. Ma’s 2.2 million vote lead was four times what had been estimated on the eve of the election.

Improvement in U.S.-Taiwan relations can be expected to follow Ma’s victory. The Bush Administration was openly critical of DPP President Chen Shui-bian, considering his independence-hinting policies to have unnecessarily inflamed tensions with China. President Bush, in contrast to 2004 when a week elapsed before he congratulated Chen, lost no time in congratulating Ma on his victory.

Comment on the KMT’s sweeping victory has largely focused on expected improvement in cross-Strait relations. Notwithstanding the PRC leadership’s obvious pleasure with KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeo’s victory, and while economic ties seem certain to thicken, movement on the political front likely will be slow and cautious. As Ma himself has pointed out, more than five million Taiwanese voted for Hsieh and are deeply suspicious of closer ties with mainland China. If he expects to be “President of all the people,” he cannot simply ignore their views. Nor will the Communists on the mainland want to charge ahead with concessions to Taiwan while they are unsure of how things will play out in the future. Each side will, as the Chinese say, “Cross the river by feeling for the stones.”

Ma will work with the KMT majority in the Legislative Yuan, gained in January, to move forward on a number of campaign promises including an increase in infrastructure spending, liberalized trade with China and expanded global trade. Ma has said he hopes direct air links between the two will begin in July on a charter basis, and become normal commercial flights by year’s end. But speaking at a media briefing hours after his victory, president-elect Ma also said China would need to dismantle its missiles aimed at the island before the two sides can engage in peace talks.

It is not surprising that security concerns played a role in the election. What is less understood outside of Taiwan is how much the elections hinged on economic issues and the taint of corruption. The last few years have seen the economy, formerly one of the world’s fastest growing, become stagnant. Largely on the back of its information technology sector, Taiwan is the world’s 17th largest economy but is losing jobs and investment to China. That in itself is a decline. In 2000, when Chen became President, Taiwan was the 13th largest economy.

The sense that the DPP had bungled economic policy fueled support for the KMT as did persistent charges of corruption against President Chen’s family and associates. Such charges are better weathered by the KMT of which few expect anything else but the DPP, as the original pro-democracy movement, had cultivated a squeaky clean image.

Labor issues and concern over easing travel restrictions with the PRC has many Taiwanese anxious over a flood of cheap Chinese labor further driving down wages across the spectrum of professions. Even university professors fear jobs will be lost if the expected easing of laws preventing mainland investment in Taiwan leads to recognition of Chinese doctorate degrees. The question of Chinese investment in Taiwanese enterprises was a serious election issue but failed to make a dent in Ma’s popularity despite the DPP’s attempts to portray him as selling out Taiwan’s national security by precipitously opening Taiwan’s economy to Chinese investment.

Hsieh’s attempts to paint Ma as soft on the PRC’s military threat to Taiwan also failed to stick. While the average Taiwanese citizen is concerned over China’s bellicose statements and ever increasing arsenal of missiles deployed just across the Straits, the DPP came under broad-based criticism for taunting the Chinese dragon with initiatives intended to stress Taiwan’s de facto independence but which all too often came off as political stunts. Even the Bush administration was extremely critical of a referendum to apply for a seat at the United Nations under the name “Taiwan” – a move which was bound to fail, and one which the PRC had declared to be a declaration of independence and, hence, an act of war.

Procurement of military systems from the United States is likely now to revive. It was frozen under President Chen’s tenure due first to obstruction by KMT members in the legislature and later by Chen’s own independence talk. Foremost are a new F-16 buy and a 2001 U.S. offer to supply eight diesel-electric attack submarines under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Media reports suggest the F-16 decision will come this summer, but the submarine question likely will be passed to the next White House occupant. Moreover there is still uncertainty as to whether the Taiwanese government will ultimately agree to spend the large amounts the subs would cost and whether the program can survive U.S. Navy reluctance to build non-nuclear boats. No non-nuclear powered submarine has been built in America since the Kennedy administration.

So-called “panda huggers” in Washington may have well misjudged Ma. Having just won a massive mandate in a popular election, he has no need to negotiate with the PRC or seek her approval. Furthermore, Ma seems to be genuinely concerned with human rights and with Taiwan’s security. Moreover, it is uncertain how Beijing will respond at a time when its (and the world’s) attention is fixed on Tibet and the Olympics. Will it at last allow Taiwan to become an observer at meetings of the World Health Assembly, along with the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and the Knights of Malta (a British ambulance organization)? Will it cease efforts to persuade the few remaining countries that formally recognize the Republic of China to switch relations to Beijing? Will it move at least a few of the thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan back from the provinces opposite the island republic?

The question for the United States is how much support will it offer Ma over the long run. For China, the even more difficult question is, after 12 years of threats and refusal of all serious contact with Taiwan (four under Lee Teng-hui and eight under Chen Shiu-bian) will the Communist bureaucracy fixed in its patterns be able to shift from straight vinegar to even a modicum of honey?


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