By JFK Miller
The KMT, the party of Chiang Kai-shek, is back in power in Taiwan after a thumping victory over the DPP in last week’s national legislative elections. The elections were the first round of two major national polls, and the KMT also looks set to win the second round in March when the island votes to elect its president. So what does all this mean for cross-straits relations?
Most pundits agree there’ll be an easing of tensions between Taiwan and Beijing, especially if pro-independence “president” (thank you, China Daily Stylebook), Chen Shui-bian, is booted out in March as anticipated. Chen has provoked Beijing by pushing for greater independence from the Chinese mainland, and has called for a nationwide referendum, to coincide with the presidential election in March, on Taiwan’s membership to the UN.
But it’s wrong to think that Taiwanese voters turned against Chen because of his pro-independence leanings, as claimed by Jane Macartney, the London Times’ correspondent in Beijing:
“In droves, voters sent out the message that they wanted to see a cooling of the political rhetoric from their leaders that has enraged China and made their island among the hottest possible flashpoints for war in Asia.”
Not true. Most Taiwan watchers agree the election was fought – and won – on domestic issues, mainly economic ones. Granted, the economy and Taiwan’s relations with the mainland are closely linked – the DPP had discouraged investment on the mainland, and barred mainland investment in Taiwan, which hindered the island’s economy. But for Macartney to claim that the defeat of KMT was due to Chen’s pro-independence rhetoric is an oversimplification.
As Philip Bowring in the IHT points out:
“… voters’ motives in rejecting the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party were more complex than simply a verdict on relations with China.”
Bowring thinks a KMT administration will bring closer ties with the mainland, but cautions that:
“… progress on cross-strait relations is unlikely to be swift as Beijing looks for commitment to the One China principle in return for the benefits of freer flows of people and money.”
The FT agrees, adding:
“Beijing will continue to apply relentless pressure – military, diplomatic and economic – to force Taiwan’s eventual absorption into Communist-ruled China and will continue to undermine the US will to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf. The Taiwanese, although eager to reap the financial benefits of cross-strait co-operation, will resist Chinese advances if they feel their freedoms, including the freedom to vote… are under threat.”
On a side note, we found this comment in the FT rather odd:
“The US is obliged by law to defend Taiwan.”
We’re not sure what “law” the FT is referring to, but assume it’s not the same “law” that obliged the U.S. to send Iraq to hell in 2003. Or maybe it is. In which case: Oh dear.
Regarding reunification, The Economist says the main problem isn’t Taiwan but Beijing:
“… the real impediment to reunification is not Taiwanese pro-independence sentiment, but rather the mainland’s political backwardness. (Taiwan is also closely watching China’s foot-dragging on democratization in Hong Kong.)”
As for the referendum on Taiwan’s UN membership, most people agree this is going nowhere. None of the five permanent members of the Security Council – China (obviously), Russia, France, Britain and the US – is backing it, and most have publicly told Taipei to drop it.
Gary Schmitt in a WSJ commentary entitled “Our One-China Cowardice” says Washington’s statement that the referendum is a “move toward Taiwan independence” is nothing less than “appeasement,” and is only encouraging Beijing to take a harder line:
“No one would tolerate Berlin waking up tomorrow and telling Paris and the world that it wanted to revisit the issue of Alsace. But somehow the West has come to accept this kind of behavior from China. Appeasing China will not lessen its ambitions toward Taiwan. If anything, by suggesting the referendum is a move toward Taiwan independence, Washington and its allies are unintentionally giving Beijing the very grounds it could use to take a more aggressive approach.”
We should add that Schmitt is director of the American Enterprise Institute, a neocon thinktank (less of the think, more of the tank).