Reflections on the Taiwanese Election

On Jan. 14, 2012, incumbent Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou emerged victorious over Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen in his country’s national election.

Having prevailed with only 51.6 percent of the vote, President Ma’s re-election was a close one, but his win may prove crucial for maintaining Taiwan’s moderate, pragmatic relationship with mainland China.

The cross-strait relationship between the two Chinas wasn’t the only policy issue of concern to Taiwanese voters, but it was a vitally important one. To outsiders, it was surely the easiest to understand.

A large percentage of the recent World Affairs Council delegation’s meetings and conversations in Taiwan centered around this relationship, and it became quickly apparent to this delegate how important maintenance of the cross-strait relationship truly is.

The 1992 Consensus

A bit of history will shed light on the current political and economic realities in the region.

In 1992, the heads of two civic organizations in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan met in Hong Kong, and reached a verbal consensus that there is only “one China” but with “two different interpretations.” This was an enormously significant breakthrough in cross-strait relations, as it allowed both Chinese nations to insist upon the integrity of a unitary China without either taunting the other with claims of the other’s illegitimacy.

Relations between the two governments have since been characterized as “mutual non-recognition of sovereignty” or “mutual non-denial of authority to govern.” Since the 1992 consensus, exchanges between Taiwan and the PRC have flourished in many areas and important agreements regarding nuclear safety and other issues have been achieved. Although no substantive progress or exchange has been made on purely political matters, political conflict has been relatively muted.

Six additional rounds of meetings have taken place between the two governments since the early 1990s, and a seventh is upcoming.  Most significantly, on June 29, 2010, Taiwan and the PRC signed their Economic Cooperative Framework Agreement, or “ECFA”. Pursuant to the terms of this agreement, trade barriers were lowered and tariffs were dropped.  ECFA has been a boon to Taiwanese development and helped Taiwan become the economic powerhouse that it is.

All of this progress has only been possible thanks to the important political developments that occurred in the early 1990s.

The three “nos.”

But given this history, how has President Ma and his Kuomintang (“KMT”) party built on these early achievements?  Ambassador Stephen S.F. Chen, now at the National Policy Foundation think-tank, made the case to the WAC delegation.

In April 2005, the then-Chairman of the KMT traveled to Beijing and issued a joint vision statement with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao that established the following:

  1. Resumption of Chinese/Taiwanese talks on the basis of parity and the 1992 consensus.
  2. A peace agreement between PRC and ROC, including the establishment of a confidence-building mechanism.
  3. Promotion of full-scale economic cooperation across the Strait, leading eventually to a cross-strait common market.
  4. Promotion of the exchange of views with regard to Taiwan’s participation in international activities.
  5. Establishment of a party-to-party platform for consultation.

When President Ma was nominated by the KMT to lead the ticket in the prior presidential election, he basically adopted these planks in his campaign platform. Since he became President of Taiwan, Ma’s cross-strait policies have continued in this same vein. He has maintained a commitment to the three “nos.”

No unification, no independence and no use of force.

The cross-strait relationship with the mainland is characterized as a “special relationship,” but not a state-to-state relationship. The two countries have pursued economic and trade policies that create a win-win situation for both China and Taiwan.

“President Ma has been doing the right things,” Ambassador Chen said.

As a result of Ma’s policies, Taiwan’s growth of 5 percent has been the envy of Europe, the Taiwan Strait is no longer a tinder box, and Taiwan has maintained a credible defense against mainland China by maintaining the U.S. as a best friend.

It was important for Taiwanese citizenry to re-elect President Ma this year because failing to do so “would jeopardize what has been done in the last four years,” Chen said.

A sign of the times

As you might expect, not all Taiwanese citizens see the desirability of the status quo in quite the same way as Ambassador Chen, President Ma and his party.

Many on the DPP side of the aisle have complained that the KMT is too close to China, and many agitate for a show of greater independence from the mainland. But as an outsider, it is hard to see why Taiwanese politicians would want to mess with a status quo that seems to serve Taiwanese interests fairly well.

Given the geo-political realities of the region, and the economic benefits that seem to have flowed to Taiwan in recent years, would jeopardizing a potentially fragile relationship with the mainland be in anyone’s interest?

The WAC delegation did meet with the Deputy Director of the DPP in hopes of understanding an alternative viewpoint on this question, and the wisdom of President Ma’s policies. Unfortunately, this delegate came away unable to see what concrete improvements the DPP would bring to its foreign relationships.

If the recent election results are any indication, it would appear that a slight majority of Taiwan’s citizens agree.

Submitted by Aaron C. Brown, Vice Chair of the Board of the World Affairs Council of Seattle. The comments of the author do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the World Affairs Council or its affiliates.

By Aaron C. Brown, Vice Chair of the Board.