As the world is caught up in the unfolding U.S. presidential race, Taiwan heads to the polls Saturday to conclude what is probably the closest campaign in the island’s 15 years of democratic rule.
But Taiwanese aren’t the only ones watching the fluctuating poll numbers with interest – the United States and China are also keeping a close eye on things. After all, policymakers on both sides of the Pacific are well aware that a change in regime could have an extremely disruptive effect on what have been the relatively stable cross-Strait relations of the past few years.
Incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) is undoubtedly China’s preferred choice, having significantly improved relations with the mainland while gaining the respect of many of Washington policymakers in the process. Under Ma, economic and cultural ties across the Strait have increased, while restrictions on investment have decreased.
But while Ma states that maintaining the status quo is of the utmost importance, the KMT’s official policy is still eventual unification. As a result, Ma’s campaign has been focused on what he considers to be a temporary compromise based on his policy of the “Three No’s”: no unification, no independence, and no war. This coming election, then, will in part be a referendum on whether he has been successful in trying to bridge the divide between those demanding independence and those eyeing unification.
As for Beijing, policymakers there have indicated a certain tacit approval of Ma’s policies, underscored in late 2008 when Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a six-point proposal detailing a basis for China-Taiwan relations. This would later prove largely consistent with Ma’s policies.
Should Ma win a second term, Beijing would undoubtedly see it as an opportunity to push for more substantive cross-Strait negotiations. Given Ma’s record of resisting Beijing’s pressure, however, increased political ties seem unlikely in the near term. Indeed, considering Ma’s push to strengthen Taiwan’s defense capabilities, including the unfilled request for the latest F-16 fighters, Ma can be expected to use his renewed political mandate to pressure the United States to meet the island’s arms requests.
Still, any tensions that Ma may create through seeking out better defense capabilities for Taiwan could pale in comparison with what a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win might do for cross-Strait ties. To many, the election of DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen would herald a repeat of the turbulence between 2000 and 2008 sparked by DPP President Chen Shui-bian, who regularly angered China and was on the receiving end of an unprecedented rebuked from Washington.
Of course, Tsai has taken a more moderate stance than Chen towards cross-Strait issues. For instance, Tsai’s campaign has been mainly focused on increasing Taiwan’s economic competitiveness overseas and strengthening ties with other nations that she says Ma has neglected. But it’s hard to see how Taiwan can enhance its international standing without upsetting Beijing.
Of course, while Tsai and her party don’t accept the legitimacy of the “One China” principle, she undoubtedly recognizes that it represents an important step towards consistently peaceful and stable relations. As a result, Tsai has proposed a “Taiwan Consensus” that would allow Taiwanese themselves to determine a formal and legitimate framework from which to base future cross-Strait negotiations. But many have questioned whether such “concessions” will be enough to maintain stable relations with China.
Regardless, the fact remains that without an acceptance by the DPP of “One China,” Tsai will find it extremely difficult to engage in any form of constructive communication with Beijing. And this in turn begs the question of how Taiwanese should then respond to an increasingly assertive China. As Tsai recently said, China can’t be faced with a divided Taiwan.
Finding an effective and acceptable united position, though, is easier said than done.
Lianna Nicole Faruolo is a Taipei-based writer.