Thursday, October 23, 2008

What if the Taipei-Beijing courtship failed?*

The election in March of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan on Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) economic platform and vow to improve relations with Beijing has led many to believe that the threat of war in the Taiwan Strait — a war that most assuredly would suck in the US military — has receded. Surely, many argued, with weekend cross-strait direct charter flights, intensifying economic integration, a greater number of Chinese allowed to visit Taiwan, KMT-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) meetings and other conciliatory measures, the tensions that characterized the eight years under the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party administration of president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the last term of the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) presidency from 1996-2000, were a thing of the past.

Even Washington, overtly critical of former president Chen’s efforts to create international space for Taiwan, welcomed Ma’s “modus vivendi” with China and regarded his administration’s efforts as a way out of decades of uncomfortable, and at times dangerous, “status quo.” While that optimism didn’t prevent Washington in early October from agreeing to sell Taipei US$6.5 billion in weapons, including PAC-3 missile defense systems and AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters, the sigh of relief could be heard across the Pacific.

In Beijing, which has always regarded Taiwan as a renegade province and threatened to use force should the latter declare formal independence, Ma’s election in March was construed as Taiwanese’s recognition, however belated, that the island belongs to China. Celebrating the DPP’s abysmal showing in the legislative and presidential elections (the vote was closely watched on Chinese television), as well as scandals surrounding senior DPP officials as well as the Chen family in recent months, Beijing toned down its rhetoric on Taiwan while remaining intransigent in its stance on the island’s status, as demonstrated by its continued opposition to Taiwan’s bids to join multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

While it is true that political tensions across the Taiwan Strait are at their lowest in more than a decade — since 1949, in fact, when the KMT was defeated by the CCP and fled to Taiwan — Beijing’s reading of the significance of the latest presidential election in Taiwan, and its equating it with a desire by Taiwanese to “reunite” with China, carries with it the seeds of future conflict. Part of this misreading could very well be the result of Beijing’s lack of experience with democracy.

Taipei and Beijing are currently courting each other, but if the budding relationship were sour and Beijing’s “love” was unrequited, there is no telling how the CCP, whose legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese is to a great extent contingent on its ability to “reunite” Taiwan, would react. Chances are its response would be of a belligerence that goes beyond the military exercises and firing of missiles off Taiwan’s coast it carried out in 1996, when Taiwan, China and the US ostensibly came the closest to trading blows since the 1950s.

Already there are signs that Ma’s efforts could fail. For one, his administration’s handling of the impact the global economic crisis has had on Taiwan, and more recently on the melamine-tainted Chinese products that entered the Taiwanese market, has led to accusations by many — including former president Lee — of incompetence, while its aloof response to devastation caused by two typhoons earlier this year has alienated many.

Furthermore, the Ma administration embarked on its peace bid with haste and has bent over backwards to please Beijing in a matter that, in the eyes of many, has threatened to undermine the sovereignty of Taiwan and the rights of its 23 million people. Making things worse has been the lack of transparency in the cross-strait negotiations, which has raised apprehensions that decisions on fundamental issues are being made without the consent, or even knowledge, of Taiwanese, which goes against the principles of democracy Taiwanese fought so hard to achieve, and which distinguishes their political
system from the authoritarianism that prevails across the strait.

Ma and his running mate, Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長), won the March election with 58.45 percent of the votes, or 7.65 million ballots, to the DPP candidates’ 41.55 percent, or 5.44 million votes. A substantial number of those who voted for Ma did so because they believed the KMT would do better than the DPP on the economic front. In other words, the economy, rather than rapprochement or “reunification” with China, was the principal factor in their voting decision.

What this means is that in addition to the great majority of DPP voters who oppose unification with China, we can expect that a not inconsiderable proportion of those who voted for the KMT is also against unification — especially if it did not come about as negotiations between equals, something Taiwanese have always set as a prerequisite for any talks on the matter.

Thus, fears that the Ma administration is giving too much, too quickly, compounded by its failure to deliver on its economic promises, are threatening to undermine the government, whose popularity has plummeted since it assumed power in May. At this rate, it is unlikely that the KMT will be reelected in 2012, which could not only mean the return of a pro-independence party to power, but would severely compromise the KMT’s ability to implement its peace initiative.

Meanwhile, a mass rally against Ma and his pro-China policies is being organized for Saturday (see map, left), while Zhang Mingqing (張銘清), the vice chairman of Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait — the main instrument of cross-strait negotiation — who was in Taiwan this week, faced protests on Monday and was “pushed” to the ground by protesters while visiting a Confucian temple in the southern city of Tainan on Tuesday.

Peace in the Taiwan Strait will not come easy, and if the current initiative gets sidetracked, what comes next could have serious implications for peace and stability in East Asia.

* Readers in Taiwan should be aware that this article is intended for a wider audience and includes information that may seem redundant to them.

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