Mar 25, 2008

Taiwan At The Crossroads?

Active ImageA closely fought election has signaled a shift in Taiwanese politics which has been welcomed by many of Taiwan’s allies.  But in the long-term it is unclear where this leaves Taiwan, and indeed raises questions of why the policies advocated by president-elect Ma Ying-jeou have won such favor in capitals around the world.

The Hague, 25 March 2008 - Media reports have heralded the beginning of a new period of reduced tensions in the Taiwan Straits accompanied by the prospect of closer engagement between Taiwan and China.  Indeed the recent election results were portrayed as having brought the world back from a potential precipice. 

But is this too simplistic a view of the factors affecting both the election and the response it received?  Arguably this could be the case.  But it has given an unlikely collection of actors the opportunity to take stock of situations which the Taiwanese elections have, for the time being, diffused but not solved.

The United States, Taiwan’s longtime ally, has been juggling relations with the de facto island state and its neighboring Communist behemoth for decades.  As China has grown and the United States’ dependence has grown in step with it, Taiwan’s importance has shrunk.  With military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, on top of its preexisting obligations, the United States is no longer in any position to dissuade China from flexing its military muscle in the Straits.  An economy dependent on Chinese exports and investment has led to a more realpolitik view of China being espoused from Capitol Hill.  Taiwan’s precarious geopolitical position has not altered however.  Thus in welcoming a change in course for Taiwan, the United States is concealing its inability to act should relations deteriorate between China and Taiwan. 

China for its part has welcomed the positive press of warming relations with Taiwan, especially in a week that drew attention to the widespread discontent simmering in its nominally autonomous regions of East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet – all of which comes ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.  The decision by the Taiwanese people not to concentrate their immediate efforts on pursuing UN membership for Taiwan also risks provoking Beijing’s public relations machine into projecting an image of Taiwan as suddenly seeking absorption into China.  Nothing could be further from the truth as opinion polls continue to attest.  The continued technical state of war, and the failure of China to make any substantive moves in the direction of a peace treaty, are clear indications of China’s ongoing intransigence to Taiwan.

Nevertheless, economic relations between China and Taiwan have been growing over a number of years without attracting large-scale international attention until now.  It has remained a domestic issue tied largely to jobs and growing international competition.  In the long-term it may even prove a path to peace and recognition of Taiwan, but for the time being it must not be allowed to become an instrument of influence wielded by China’s centrally planned economy against Taiwan.

Within Taiwan itself, the close parliamentary majority enjoyed by the former opposition Kuomintang (KMT) in the lower house of the Taiwanese parliament or Yuan allowed it to halt defence spending planned by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).  Greater legislative freedom and the fact that the DPP are now in a position to prove the depth of Taiwan’s democracy and act as an effective opposition, scrutinizing and holding the new government to account should give increased vitality to Taiwan’s political debate and the challenges that face it.

If only the same could be said of China’s political life.