In the present election campaign, Taiwanese are mainly focused on issues that concern their daily well-being — the economy, jobs, good governance, etc. However, the China factor continues to loom in the background. At issue is who can handle relations with China better.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has followed a policy of rapprochement, which in his view has brought about closer bilateral relations with China, especially in the economic area, and he prides himself on “reducing tensions.”
Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has argued that Ma has gone too far, too fast, and that this has undermined Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy. She is advocating that Taiwan rebalances its international relations, drawing closer to fellow democracies, such as Japan and the US.
As I have previously stated, the present policies have not really reduced tension, but they have created a temporary lull as the leaders in Beijing feel that Taiwan is moving into China’s orbit. There has not really been any substantial change in the attitudes of the leaders in Beijing — they still threaten Taiwan with military might.
How does one get out of this stalemate? How could there really be a change in attitudes in Beijing?
If the political landscape in Taiwan remains the same, this would reinforce attitudes in Beijing — strong-arm tactics combined with an economic carrot seem to work and China’s leaders would feel justified in their policies. It would strengthen the present rather repressive regime.
The result would be that China would continue to draw Taiwan closer, with a more intertwined economy and the start of political moves. China would change Taiwan in its direction.
However, if there is a dramatic change in the political landscape resulting in a change of government, then the Chinese will see right on their doorstep that people can change their government through democratic means. It would be a powerful example of what democracy is all about and it would be an inspiration for people all over China to redouble their efforts in the direction of democracy.
The result would be that Taiwan would change China. The democratic process in Taiwan would be a beacon for people in China who long for more freedom and human rights.
The autocratic rulers in Beijing will, of course, not like it and they may artificially create new tensions, threaten Taiwan or urge the US to pressure Taiwan. Here is where the US will need to stick to its basic principles and be fully supportive of Taiwan.
There have been some reports saying that the administration of US President Barack Obama has a “clear preference” for Ma over Tsai. Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said something along those lines in a recent article.
This is simply incorrect. The US government has made it very clear that it does not believe any one party or leader in Taiwan has a monopoly on effective management of the US-Taiwan relationship, that it does not take sides in elections and that it will work closely with whatever leadership emerges from Taiwan’s free and fair elections.
If the Obama administration has a longer term vision for peace and stability in East Asia, it will actually be more supportive of those in Taiwan who work to strengthen freedom and democracy in the country. The example of another change of government in Taipei would indeed help push China in the right direction and bring about a much-needed change in the attitudes of the rulers in Beijing.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 through 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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