“Looming anxiety” about the future of cross-strait relations is having a huge impact on Taiwan’s presidential election campaign, US academic Shelley Rigger told a Washington conference on Wednesday.
“It’s not so much a debate about the details of policy; it’s more a debate about who can handle this,” she said. “President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) policies do better than the candidate himself. It’s not that people don’t like what he is doing, it’s that people are not entirely confident in his leadership.”
The conference entitled “Taiwan’s Upcoming Presidential and Legislative Elections,” organized by the Brookings Institution, was the latest in a series of US events reflecting a growing interest in Taiwanese politics driven by unease over the bigger picture of US-China relations.
Moderator Richard Bush, a senior fellow at Brookings, asked Rigger how the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could have come back so strongly after being “consigned to the graveyard” just three and a half years ago.
“One thing that has helped the DPP a lot is disillusionment with Ma,” Rigger said. “The expectations that Taiwanese voters had for President Ma were incredibly high. People were excited and thought that he was going to do great things. It’s not so much that he hasn’t delivered on his promises; it’s that as a leader the expectation was that he would be more charismatic and more inspiring.”
Instead, she said, he had been inward looking and aloof.
At the same time, Rigger said, the DPP had benefited from the perception that in a democracy there is a need for a multi-party environment.
However, while the DPP has revived remarkably well, its success is problematic, she said.
“I don’t think the DPP has really dealt with the problems that caused its downfall in 2008. The recovery has been too quick and the same people are back again, and that makes Beijing very uncomfortable,” she said.
Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉), an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica in Taipei, said he had heard that there was some deep dissatisfaction with Ma in Beijing.
He said Ma had not been doing what hardliners in Beijing expected politically and that Ma had not given as much as he received.
Hsu said that if Ma is re-elected, the pressure on him from Beijing might increase.
Rigger said she was in Shanghai last weekend meeting academics and officials, and their message was crystal clear: “They do not want to see Tsai elected.”
“The focus of their anxiety is her unwillingness to endorse the [so-called] ‘1992 consensus.’ That is going to be a real sticking point if she wins,” Rigger said. “They are going to put pressure on the US to keep this situation under control if she wins and they were very explicit in threatening various kinds of repercussions for Taiwan.”
Among the likely repercussions are that direct quasi-official talks on cross-strait affairs could end; “economic assistance” — ostensibly from China to Taiwan — would be hard to continue; agreements already signed might not be implemented, including the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA); and the international space that Taiwan has been given could be pulled back.
“What the US government genuinely desires is another free and fair election,” Rigger said.
However, it is also true that the last three years of “peace” in the Taiwan Strait had provided the US with the opportunity to focus its attention on other pressing issues.
If Tsai is elected, Rigger added, there is a possibility that the People’s Republic of China would no longer continue that pattern and that “would be unfortunate from the US point of view.”
Bush said that if Tsai won the election, the US would not prejudge her and that any anxieties that might exist could be calmed, based on her performance.
“We would want to see what she did, rather than making a judgement in advance,” he said.
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