Washington has been lavishing attention on Taiwan, stepping up official visits and saying it will likely allow visa-free travel to the US. The moves are raising suspicions that Washington is trying to influence a tight presidential election in Taiwan later this month.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who is seeking re-election, has seized on Washington’s favors, touting them as reasons voters should re-elect him.
Although some local media, including this newspaper, have carried editorials alleging the US has taken sides in the election, US authorities maintain they remain neutral.
Despite US denials, Tamkang University political scientist Edward Chen (陳一新) said the timing of the visa announcement just a few weeks before the Jan. 14 poll “carried political connotations.”
While the US has influenced Taiwan’s politics since it stationed military forces there during the Cold War, Washington has generally kept aloof in presidential elections.
The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy in Taipei, said that Washington remains neutral this time too, wanting to see a free and fair vote in one of Asia’s most dynamic democracies.
“The United States does not interfere in foreign elections,” AIT spokesperson Sheila Paskman said. “And that includes Taiwan’s.”
Whether or not Washington intended to boost Ma, its recent moves have reinforced perceptions that the US sees its interests better served by him.
Ma has made his signature policy the tying of Taiwan’s high-tech economy ever closer to China’s lucrative markets. Beijing has been delighted, muting past threats of military force.
The result has been to ease tensions across the 160km-wide Taiwan Strait to what some analysts and officials claim are the lowest level since 1949. That, in their view, reduces the chances that the US would be embroiled in a conflict at a time when it is trying to repair its economy, steady relations with Beijing and re-engage in East Asia after a decade of preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan.
By contrast, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is chaired by Ma’s primary presidential challenger, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), generally supports formal independence from China, as opposed to the de facto independence Taiwan has now.
Tsai’s predecessor as party leader, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), frequently “angered” Beijing when he was president from 2000 until 2008.
Though Tsai has backed away from what his detractors have characterized as his “brinksmanship” with China, she has never publicly renounced independence.
There is “no doubt in my mind that Washington would be more comfortable with a Ma win,” international relations specialist Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in an e-mail. “One of the traditional and overwrought fears in [Washington] DC is that a DPP administration will come in and ‘make trouble.’”
Polls show a very tight race. Though Ma holds a slight edge, a surge by People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜), a former member of Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), would likely take more votes away from Ma than Tsai.
Ma has campaigned as the candidate most capable of building ties with China without sacrificing Taiwan’s close links with the US, still its most important partner 33 years after Washington transferred its recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the government of China.