The results of the elections for city and local mayors, county commissioners and city and county councilors came as a surprise. But in all of the explanation and analysis of the results, one key aspect was overlooked — the international factor.
Over the past year, there were three major issues in which Taiwan was influenced by international factors.
First, Typhoon Morakot in early August killed around 700 people. The disaster attracted international attention, and both the US and China expressed a willingness to help. The US sent ships carrying helicopters to help with relief efforts. This was an example of international rivalry and globalization exerting influence on Taiwanese domestic affairs, and was seen by political scientists at home and abroad as having considerable diplomatic and security implications. The government came under criticism at home and abroad for inefficiencies in its disaster relief work, and this became a latent factor in party politics.
The second issue is the ongoing controversy over the government’s decision to lift a ban on imports of certain US beef products. The debate has made Taiwanese aware of how issues relating to globalization can affect their daily lives.
The third issue, and the one with the greatest and most far-reaching influence, is the new stage that has been reached in cross-strait relations.
Cross-strait relations over the past couple of years have been friendly and lively, a development that has been welcomed by the US, Japan and other countries, as well as many Taiwanese industrialists.
However, the government has not been sufficiently transparent about the process, the legal aspects and its agenda as it prepares to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA). Therefore, the public does not fully understand what is going on.
It usually takes six or seven years of preparation before countries will sign a free trade agreement, but Taiwan and China are near to inking a similar agreement after just two. Many experts and academics, as well as the political opposition, question whether the ECFA process has been rushed and not properly thought through.
Many feel that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration, keen to improve relations and promote trade across the Taiwan Strait, has made too many concessions too fast to Beijing on Taiwan’s sovereignty. The KMT means to stand by the “1992 consensus” and its slogans “one China, with each side having its own interpretation” and “setting aside controversies about sovereignty,” but there is considerable disquiet that this might result in a denial of Taiwan’s sovereignty itself, and that Taiwan’s status as a country will become even more troubled and vague.
External factors include US President Barack Obama’s China-friendly policy, which differs significantly from that of the previous administration, while newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has also taken a clear China-friendly line. China continues to pursue a big-power foreign policy based on “peaceful development,” pushing its own unilateral interpretation of “one China” and limiting Taiwan’s “flexible diplomacy.”
All these factors have contributed to an underlying anxiety among Taiwanese, and these concerns were to some extent reflected in the recent city and county election results. It is worth noting how these elections, though local in nature, exhibited to some extent voting behavior based on national identity — something rarely seen in previous local elections.
A key factor in future elections will be the knowledge and ability of candidates and their support teams on cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s strategic position in global affairs. After the ECFA is signed, economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region will continue apace, and this will involve subtle changes in relations between the US, Taiwan and Japan. Consequently, national sovereignty and security will be crucial campaign issues in next year’s elections for mayors and councilors in Taiwan’s five special municipalities, and in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections.
In the meantime, the globalization of economics, trade, human rights, culture and national security will accelerate. Consequently, the public will have greater expectations of local governments in dealing with international affairs. Candidates and their support teams will have to cultivate knowledge and abilities regarding cross-strait and international relations so that voters can trust them to handle whatever situation may emerge.
Soong Hseik-wen is director of the Graduate Institute of Strategy and International Affairs at National Chung Cheng University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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