Ma’s election in 2008 suggested that Chen’s bold, pro‐independence policies had made many Taiwanese uneasy. Washington also regarded the KMT’s return to power with a sense of relief, believing that the period of Taipei’s risky brinksmanship had come to an end. And cross‐strait tensions have eased dramatically during Ma’s administration. Economic links between Taiwan and the mainland surged, with more than 20 significant agreements. Taiwanese investment on the mainland has become a major factor, and tens of thousands of mainland tourists now visit the island annually.
Beijing’s underlying strategy was evident: Chinese leaders believed that the proliferation of economic ties would gradually undermine public support for the DPP and its goal of an independent Taiwan. At best, though, that strategy has been just partially successful. The overall orientation of the DPP certainly has become less strident regarding independence. Most party adherents do not seem to favor a return to the highly confrontational stance of the Chen years.
Such greater moderation, though, has not translated into a meaningful increase of the public’s receptivity to reunification with the mainland. Opinion surveys consistently show meager support for Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula, even if it included a high degree of political autonomy for Taiwan. Hong Kong’s recent restlessness regarding that system, and Beijing’s uncompromising response toward the demand of Hong Kong’s activists for democratic reforms, reinforced the wariness of the Taiwanese people.
Beijing’s hopes that an ever‐increasing network of cross‐strait economic ties would lead to Taiwan’s greater willingness to accept political reunification were always excessive. Indeed, even the accommodating Ma Ying‐jeou expressed definite limits regarding prospects for reunification. In a crucial 2006 speech, Ma stressed the conditions that would have to be met before unification could occur. First, the mainland would have to become fully democratic. Second, the Taiwanese people would have to give their explicit consent. (Indeed, he emphasized that voters must be allowed to opt for independence, if that is what they wanted.) Finally, the vast differences in both the economic and social systems of the mainland and Taiwan had to be narrowed dramatically.
Although Ma was willing to accept reunification in principle, his caveats were so demanding as to render it impossible in the foreseeable future. And Ma may well be the most cooperative Taiwanese leader that Beijing will face, given the island’s political realities.
The contentious Taiwan issue has merely been slumbering during the presidency of Ma Ying‐jeou, and it now shows signs of awakening. That development is more than a matter of academic interest to the United States. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is obligated to assist Taipei’s efforts to maintain an effective defense and to regard any coercive moves Beijing might attempt against the island as a serious threat to the peace of East Asia. Impatience on Beijing’s part regarding Taiwan’s status could reignite that issue as a source of tension in U.S.-China relations.
Bilateral relations are already somewhat fragile. The announced U.S. “pivot” of U.S. forces to East Asia intensified Beijing’s suspicions about Washington’s geostrategic motives. And sharp differences regarding territorial issues in the South China and East China seas have also become a persistent source of friction. Adding the emotional Taiwan issue to existing disputes could easily produce an explosive confrontation. Both U.S. and Chinese leaders need to proceed with extreme caution.