Taiwan Election

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image: risingpowersinitiative.org

With China’s recent territorial assertiveness in the East China and South China Seas, as well as its military expansion, the United States has expressed growing concern about this rising power. Last November, in what was widely seen as an attempt to reassure U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific as well as to send a warning to China, President Obama announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines to Australia over the course of the next few years. In this atmosphere of unspoken competition and tension, however, the recent Taiwanese election has allowed both the United States and China a breath of relief.

The United States has been an ally of the Republic of China (ROC) government–now on Taiwan–since the early days of WWII. Until the 1970’s, the United States recognized the ROC as the sole legitimate government of China. Even after official recognition of the officially communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) government on the mainland and the establishment of diplomatic relations, Congress still clung to its longtime ROC ally by passing the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. This act, still in effect as U.S. policy, guarantees that if Taiwan were ever threatened militarily (especially by the PRC) the United States would defend the island.

While no conflict has erupted between Taiwan and mainland China in the past few decades, the presidency of Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 2008 saw a period of significant cross-strait tension due to Chen’s pro-independence stance. Chen was the leader of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which usually favors formal independence from China, a policy openly condemned by the PRC. Chen was replaced in 2008 by Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT). Cross-strait relations eased immediately following Ma’s election. Over the past four years, significant progress has been made on economic cooperation. Ma’s presidency oversaw the establishment of direct flights and shipping routes between Taiwan and China as well as a trade deal that slashed tariffs on hundreds of items.

Relaxing cross-strait tensions has at least reduced one U.S. worry in the Asia-Pacific. Although the United States and China still eye each other warily, there are signs that both countries have no desire for outright conflict. The U.S. arms sale to Taiwan last year is an excellent example of how Chinese and American leaders deliberately maintain the status quo when difficulties arise. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been a sore point in Sino-U.S. relations for decades because the PRC views Taiwan as a renegade province and U.S. arms deals as an infringement of Chinese sovereignty. Nevertheless, arms sales have continued through the years, at a price of $6.4 billion in 2010 and $5.85 billion in 2011. Although China expressed disapproval of the 2011 arms sale, the rhetorical rebuke was mild compared to China’s response in 2010, when it completely cut off military exchanges with the United States for nearly a year. The United States, for its part, limited the 2011 deal to include merely upgrades of old F-16 fighter jets rather than a shipment of new F-16s. The relatively calm way in which both countries proceeded made the exchange seem more like a scripted role than a passionate display of animosity.

In this environment of delicate balancing, the recent Taiwanese presidential election comes as a major relief to both China and the United States. Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou won a second term after defeating his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opponent Tsai Ing-wen with 51.6% of the vote. Many analysts see Ma’s re-election as a referendum to continue improving cross-strait relations.

While neither China nor the United States have explicitly expressed their pleasure with Ma’s re-election, both acknowledge that Ma’s victory bodes well for peaceful Sino-U.S. relations. With Ma occupying the Taiwanese presidency for another term, China can look forward to further economic interactions and general quiet on the issue of independence. For the United States, this means one less ally to worry about militarily and a continuance of the status quo with China.

Although Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election bodes well for peaceful Sino-U.S. relations, the United States should not let its guard down. With the relatively easy policy goals of cross-strait economic ties already reached, China might take advantage of the KMT’s moderate stance and press Ma further on tougher issues like independence. This would require more U.S. vigilance. However, since the situation is bright at the moment, the United States should let the positive feelings persist as long as possible and not push into what China perceives as its domain. Since both sides are content with the status quo, the United States should savor the current respite and carefully wait for the future. As long as China does not push American allies, the United States should seek to preserve the status quo.

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