Washington must back Taiwanese democracy

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Sat, Jan 14, 2012 - Page 8

In the past week, presidential candidates have made important speeches and held big rallies to muster support for their campaigns in the run-up to today’s all-important presidential and legislative elections. At the same time, the US has been focused on the Republican Party’s presidential primary in New Hampshire held on Tuesday and it is now eagerly awaiting the next one in South Carolina next Saturday, in preparation for the US presidential elections in November.

The two elections have several things in common; heated debate about the economy, the social system, healthcare, house prices and good governance. However, there are also significant differences: the US is an established power with a global presence that is generally respected, but sometimes challenged by nations with different interests, while Taiwan is a small country, threatened by a giant neighbor that denies its existence as a free and democratic nation, while most of the rest of the world only maintains economic ties and tends to meekly accept Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.

It is quite remarkable that in spite of all the obstacles, Taiwanese have built such a vibrant democracy. Therefore, It would be good if the US could for a moment turn its attention away from domestic concerns and focus on what is happening in Taiwan today.

The presidential campaign has been a close-run race between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), who favors closer ties with China, and Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who emphasizes retaining Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.

While the US has officially taken no side in this election, and rightly so, it needs to pay closer attention to the fairness of the election process and the reaction of the People’s Republic of China. I already discussed the first of these in an earlier article (“Neutrality needed from Washington and Beijing,” Dec. 28, page 8). I would like to take this opportunity to say a few more words about what we can expect in terms of cross-strait relations.

If Ma wins, we can expect a continuation of current trends and the nation would likely drift closer to China.

Will this be good for democracy in Taiwan?

It might bring short-term stability, but is it good for the longer-term balance in East Asia?

If Tsai wins and there is a peaceful transition of government, that would demonstrate the vibrancy of democracy in Taiwan and be a beacon of hope for people in neighboring countries, particularly China.

However, in such an eventuality, Beijing’s leaders — who are not very interested in democracy — can be expected to kick up a storm and increase political tension, or threaten Taiwan with economic or even military measures.

The best way for the US to counter such pressure is to make it crystal clear that it stands by Taiwan, that it supports its democracy and will work closely with the nation’s elected political leaders.

The US also needs to stress that during the four-month transitional period until the new administration takes office, all sides must respect the outcome of the elections and support a peaceful transition, without any outside interference.

In this way, we can ensure that Taiwanese have a free choice in decisions that impact their future. This is just as important as the discussions in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 through 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.