When the people of Taiwan vote in presidential and legislative elections next month, nobody will be more interested in the outcome than Beijing and Washington.
The reason: Whoever is elected will most likely exert a strong influence on the course of Taiwan’s relations with China for the foreseeable future. If those relations are not handled well, it could cause a dangerous confrontation which could, in turn, lead to hostilities between the US and China.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), who is running for re-election, says he would continue his efforts to ease tensions between China and Taiwan.
His main challenger, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), promises to continue some of Ma’s approaches to Beijing, but would insist on asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty and separation from China.
A third candidate, People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜), has no chance of winning, but will take unknown numbers of votes from the other two candidates, making the result even more unpredictable.
“This whole thing is too close to call,” an experienced US diplomat said.
He and others are skeptical of the accuracy of pre-election polls, most of which show Ma slightly ahead.
Chinese leaders are watching intently because they have long said that Taiwan is a part of China and that the 23 million Taiwanese must return to the embrace of the “motherland.” China might resort to military force to achieve that.
Opposing that claim, the US has said the future of Taiwan must be dependent on the consent of the people and be peaceable. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 might require the use of US military force to prevent conquest by China.
Beijing has let it be known that it favors Ma, even though he comes from the KMT, their long-term adversary. Ma is seen as being more receptive to Beijing’s position on economic issues and not opposed to Taiwan’s eventual unification with China.
From Washington’s point of view, Ma is to be applauded for cooling tempers in cross-strait relations. On the other hand, he has done little to improve Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. Military spending, for instance, has hovered just above 2 percent of GDP, rather than the 3 percent he pledged before taking office.
In contrast, Tsai is held suspect by Beijing because her party advocates independence. However, she is considered more moderate on that issue than former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP, who served from 2000 to 2008.
“She sees no need to be confrontational,” a Tsai supporter said in Taipei.
If elected, Tsai would seek to strengthen Taiwan’s military forces to hold off a Chinese invasion long enough for the US to come to its aid. She would also seek to improve military ties with US forces, particularly the Pacific Command, which is headquarted in Hawaii.
Officials in US President Barack Obama’s administration have taken no public position, as is usual when other nations hold elections. Privately, they said that Ma’s stance was known and they foresaw no surprises. However, they also pointed out that Tsai had been involved in cross-strait relations as Mainland Affairs Council chairperson, the main channel of communication with Beijing.
The Associated Press reported from Taipei that the campaign had been relatively low-key until a televised debate a week ago when Ma sought to link Tsai to Chen, who has been jailed on -corruption charges.
Tsai retorted that she was running in 2012, not 2008, and accused Ma of opening the door for China to bring Taiwan under its sway. Instead, she portrayed herself as a centrist who would unify the people of Taiwan to deal with China.
Whatever the outcome, it seems fair to conclude that this campaign has nourished the roots of Taiwan’s democracy. The election of then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) of the KMT in 1996 marked the first direct presidential election in the history of Chinese-speaking peoples. Next year’s vote, on Jan. 14, will be the fifth such election.
About 66 percent of Taiwan’s voters are expected to cast ballots, compared with 58.5 percent in 2008 and 76 percent in 1996. In the US, 61.7 percent of the voters turned out in 2008.
In addition, press reports from Taipei say that last week’s campaign debate was carried by television and the Internet to China. The result of the voting is also expected to be carried on the same media. In the past, the Chinese government, which does not care for displays of democracy, has often banned such reports.
Richard Halloran is a commentator base in Hawaii.
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