Friday, July 31, 2009

Two constituencies Ma can’t ignore (yet)

Perhaps as a result of my working on a book review of Scott Kastner’s excellent Political Conflict and Economic Interdependence Across the Taiwan Strait and Beyond, I have recently begun paying more attention to the role of domestic constituencies in political decisionmaking. While Kastner’s book focuses on the impact of “internationalist business interests” on cross-strait political decisionmaking — which I also address in my July 29 article “What’s behind Taiwan’s stock/media bias?” — another segment that historically has had substantial influence on Taipei’s policy choices is, for obvious reasons, the military establishment.

As is becoming increasingly evident, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration is bound and driven by big business and financial institutions to an extent that is probably unprecedented in the history of the party. Given the close relationship between big business, the banking sector, and the KMT, it is no surprise that Ma’s cross-strait policies have been greatly beneficial to those sectors, and that whatever friction may have existed under previous iterations of the party, such as under president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), has largely disappeared. This is largely the result of the leaders’ divergent assessments of the impact of cross-strait economic integration as well as on their respective stance on the question of Taiwanese independence.

For Lee, whose political views on Taiwanese sovereignty took precedence over business interests, cross-strait economic integration had negative externalities, which accounted for his efforts, especially after his re-election in 1996, to “go south” (i.e., diversify foreign investment destinations to minimize reliance on China) and proceed with caution.

The Ma administration, for its part, appears to be indentured to the business community, while it clearly sees cross-strait economic liberalization as less threatening. In fact, Ma and his aides see integration as a stabilizing force, a view that is thoroughly supported by the business community. Another important factor is the fact that while Ma has vowed not to achieve unification during his first term, this development remains a long-term objective of today’s KMT.

But while Ma can count on the corporate and financial sectors to back his policies, and while he can expect full backing — especially now that he is KMT chairman — of the legislature, of which the pan-blue camp controls three quarters of the seats, there are two constituencies, one domestic and one foreign, that he cannot afford to neglect: the military, and Washington.

Ma’s pronouncements on the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, added to his stated willingness to procure for the Taiwanese military the means to defend itself, have at times sounded paradoxical when contrasted with his public statements on political reconciliation with Beijing. In fact, his averred desire to purchase weapons from Washington cannot but have strained relations with Beijing — and yet, this is one sector where Ma has tended to sound like his predecessors.

It would be difficult to reconcile his public statements on defense appropriations with his political statements vis-à-vis Beijing and ostensible efforts to undermine defense (e.g., downgrading of Han Kuang military exercises) were it not for the fact that the military is probably the last remaining branch of government that has remained wary of Beijing’s intentions, as evidenced by its reaction to the Japan Defense Ministry’s White Paper released earlier this month. As such, the military probably represents the last domestic constituency challenge to Ma’s cross-strait policies, and one way to placate it and keep criticism to a minimum is to maintain weapons procurement and to keep military spending at a stable level. 

Ma has yet to consolidate his powerbase to such an extent that he can afford to ignore the apprehensions of the military, although purges, in the form of corruption probes, could soon change that by whittling away at the sectors of the military that remain resistant to unification — in other words, the pan-green elements within the armed forces.

When it comes to Washington, Ma has also been forced to edge against the possibility of abandonment at a time when uncertainty remains in the Taiwan Strait. Over the years, proof of political commitment and good relations with the US has largely come in the form of arms purchases. If Ma were to suddenly cut off the arms procurement spigot with the US, Washington could react either by increasing pressure on Taipei (especially by US constituents that fear a scenario in which Taiwan becomes part of the Chinese camp in East Asia) or abandon it altogether, which could have serious ramifications for Taiwan’s ability to defend itself should cross-strait rapprochement get derailed.

Ma cannot yet disregard the interests of the military establishment. The question is, as his powerbase grows and as the military is “cleansed” of what he sees as revisionist elements, will he become increasingly unresponsive to its appeals? One way to assess this will be to see how the military gets reorganized and the conclusions reached by the corruption probes. Another will be to look at Ma’s future pronouncements on military expenditure, and whether words are turned into action — in other words, whether the weapons are actually purchased and fielded.

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