Taiwan Election Outcome Brings Relief for Washington

The new president favors improving relations with China, cooling a worrisome flashpoint for the region.

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Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party

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The election of a moderate Taiwanese leader who opposes risky moves toward the island's independence has handed the Bush administration a good break in managing its complex relationship with China.

Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former Taipei mayor representing Taiwan's Nationalist Party, won a commanding victory in Saturday's presidential election with 58 percent of the vote. His rival, Frank Hsieh of the governing Democratic Progressive Party, took 42 percent—a sign of considerable anxiety on the island with its economic prospects and with the current president's confrontational style in dealing with the far more powerful mainland.

The president, Chen Shui-bian, has served for eight years after riding into office on the winds of decades of popular anger at the once heavy-handed rule of the Nationalists, who dominated the island after losing a civil war with China's communists in 1949. Chen appealed to a growing yearning on the island—however inconvenient for Washington—to eventually assert Taiwan's formal independence from China and take a place among the world's sovereign nations.

But Chen's firebrand approach to pushing Taiwan's de facto separation from China to a new level angered policymakers in Washington, who saw it as rattling the delicate balance on the Taiwan issue that had been forged in the early days of U.S.-Chinese relations in the 1970s. As Chen's tenure went on, the Washington-Taipei relationship grew seriously strained, with some U.S. officials implying on background that Chen was acting recklessly, such as when he promoted a referendum that enraged Beijing by calling for admission to the United Nations under the name Taiwan. That measure also failed in Saturday's voting.

The Bush administration took no position in the race, as is customary. But even in the world of muted diplomatic rhetoric, the collective sigh of relief in Washington was fairly clear—and immediate. President Bush said the result offers "a fresh opportunity for both sides to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences." Bush's remarks essentially endorsed the approach advocated by Ma, calling on both sides to pursue dialogue "and refraining from unilateral steps that would alter the cross-Strait situation."

And reflecting an unstated contrast with China, Bush commended the election as showing the island of 23 million people to be "a beacon of democracy to Asia and the world."

Beijing, doubtless, is also relieved at the return to power of the Nationalists, who still maintain that Taiwan is ultimately part of China and are, in theory, open to reunification under the right conditions.

China has threatened war if Taiwan ever did declare independence, and it has positioned missiles and other military assets across the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate its seriousness. The Bush administration, like its predecessors, has left the impression that it would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an attack—without saying so clearly.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that should come back into the fold, and U.S. arms sales and unofficial political support for Taiwan remain an unresolved strain between Washington and Beijing.

Ma, who is fluent in English and well known in American policy circles, is advocating limited steps toward improving relations with Beijing. He has said he aims to increase commerce with the mainland by easing investment restrictions, introducing regular air service to Shanghai and Beijing, and—later—negotiating a peace accord.

Writing in the winter 2007-08 Washington Quarterly, China scholars Chu Yun-han and Andrew Nathan say that "Ma would endorse the one-China principle, the idea that there is only one China of which Taiwan is a part, as long as Beijing and Taipei can each interpret this principle in its own way."

Ma has also argued for increasing defense spending on Taiwan—a sore point with some U.S. officials who feel that Taiwan has not done enough to build its own security and has relied too heavily on the expectation that U.S. forces in the Pacific would come to its rescue in a crisis.