Tuesday, January 05, 2010

APAC 2020: Taiwan snapshot

Australian magazine The Diplomat published its APAC 2020: The Decade Ahead report today, which brought together a series of academics and journalists in an attempt to descry the future of the region through snapshots and feature articles. The magazine kindly invited me to provide a 10-year forecast for Taiwan, which appears below. The whole package is worth reading, as it includes informative pieces by the likes of Minxin Pei on China, Robert Sutter on the US’ declining influence in the region, and Toshi Yoshihara on the next Asian arms race, among others.

The next decade will be marked by much uncertainty about Taiwanese sovereignty. After sixty years of ‘status quo’ in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan under President Ma Ying-jeou is seen by many as drifting into China’s sphere of influence. The Hong Kong-born Ma took office in 2008 vowing to improve relations with Beijing, and has done so by signing various cross-strait pacts, including a possible economic cooperation framework agreement in early 2010.

Amid these rapid changes, Ma’s opponents fear that he is causing irreparable damage to Taiwan’s sovereignty by increasing the nation’s dependence on China, which could have political implications — something that Beijing has made no effort to conceal.

Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party argues that negotiations between Ma’s administration and the Chinese Communist Party lack transparency, that the legislature has been sidelined and that public apprehensions about the political and economic impacts of rapprochement have been ignored. As rumors of a ‘peace treaty’ and a possible Ma-Hu Jintao meeting in 2011 intensify, domestic opposition to Ma’s China policies is rising and risks boiling over.

With Hu stepping down in 2012 and Taiwan holding presidential elections the same year, Beijing could apply pressure for a quick political settlement, which would severely undermine Ma’s credibility vis-à-vis a Taiwanese polity that largely favors the status quo and increasingly identifies itself as Taiwanese first, Chinese second. If Ma is re-elected, we can expect moves toward unification, accompanied by an erosion of freedoms and liberties. If the pro-independence DPP stages a comeback, Beijing could show its impatience by using its military to settle the matter, or exploit its growing economic and political clout to isolate the island.

Despite ‘warmer’ ties, Taiwan’s ability to defend itself has suffered from delays in US weapons deliveries and Washington’s refusal to sell pre-approved items such as advanced F-16s, and military analysts warn that the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has shifted in Beijing’s favor.

Whether Beijing and Washington become ‘strategic allies’ or competitors in the next ten years, and whether the US remains committed to defending Taiwan, will have a decisive impact on how this plays out.

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