On Sunday, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou faces off against opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen in a televised debate over a controversial proposed trade deal with mainland China.
I’ll be taking a look at the fall-out from that debate and what it could mean for a president whose popularity has tumbled from its early highs and whose approval rating has remained stubbornly in the low twenties.
But before that, I wanted to take the opportunity of a big one-day academic conference being held in Taiwan to take a look at US-Taiwan ties.
The conference, which took place at the Tamsui campus of Tamkang University, was entitled ‘The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy’ and covered a range of subjects including the US-Japan security alliance, Sino-US relations and an intriguing sounding presentation by Dr. Kennedy Ondieki of the University of Nairobi—‘Renewable Energy as a Viable Solution to Global Terrorism and Piracy Directed at America and its Allies.’
I asked Taiwanese blogger Leonard Chien, who attended the conference, what he made of the discussions. He told me one theme that came up was what some see as the lack of returns on the time the Obama administration has so far invested in East Asia.
He told me one panellist noted: ‘US Secretary of State Clinton visited Asia as her first foreign trip, and Obama visited Asia less than one year after he was inaugurated. Both of them were unconventional moves, yet China is still stubborn on the renminbi exchange rate, and there was still strong disagreements between the US and China in Copenhagen.’
This would have been a fair point a couple of months ago, but it seems like the Obama administration has pushed back somewhat since then. Indeed Frank Ching, writing in the China Post earlier this week, has actually scored the recent tensions between the US and China in the US’s favour:
‘[T]he nuclear security summit shows that despite all the talk of a rising China and a declining America, the United States is the only country that could have called such a meeting and successfully got so many countries to pledge to take action to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years.
‘China could have refused to take part out of spite but, if it did that, it would have tarnished its own image. China would have hurt itself much more than the United States by its petulance.
‘President Obama bowed when he shook hands with President Hu. The Chinese leader did not bow back. But the American had clearly won in this battle of wills. He could afford to be magnanimous.’
What really upset China was the US decision earlier this year to sell arms to Taiwan. China was vocal in its displeasure and hinted that it might actually sanction US firms involved.
But does the arms sale disguise any kind of wavering US commitment to Taiwan? Leonard told me the panellists also broached the issue of Taiwan-US ties, and there was some concern that Taiwan needed to do more to integrate its interests with the United States, especially in light of the US-China Joint Statement in November 2009, which some analysts saw as taking the US a step closer to Chinese claims of sovereignty. Indeed, Leonard said some panellists described the statement as ‘dangerous’ to Taiwan in the long run.