Storm Warning

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on September 26, 2009.

Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, is under withering fire from domestic critics, and his eroding political fortunes could have an adverse impact on cross-strait relations. Ma's popularity, which stood at nearly 60 per cent when he took the oath of office in May 2008, had fallen to an anaemic 35 to 40 per cent by the summer of 2009, as he received much of the blame for the economic woes that Taiwan shares with the rest of the global economy.

But it was his inept handling of the destruction caused by Typhoon Morakot in early August that has truly imperiled his political future. Rescue efforts were poorly executed, and criticism poured in that a more competent performance might have saved at least some of the 670 people who perished. Ma himself apologised to the Taiwanese public, but the pervasive anger barely abated. On September 7, the Morakot fiasco caused prime minister Liu Chao-shiuan to resign, followed a few days later by the rest of his cabinet. By then, Ma's approval rating had plunged to 20 per cent - a dangerous level for any incumbent.

There is an eerie parallel between Ma's misfortunes in the aftermath of Morakot and US president George W. Bush's political problems after Hurricane Katrina. Even before that storm, Bush was a highly controversial figure, but the mishandling of the rescue efforts in New Orleans greatly escalated public doubts about his judgment in appointing high-level officials and his overall competence as president. He was never able to erase that perception, and it is likely that Ma will experience a similar problem.

That ongoing shift in Taiwan's political landscape has far-reaching implications. Tensions with Beijing have declined dramatically since Ma took office, in marked contrast to the situation that existed with his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. Mainland China and Taiwan have established a regular scheduled commercial airline service, mainland tourists are visiting the island in robust numbers, and a wide range of economic ties are growing at a brisk rate.

Political relations have also improved, as the two sides are engaging in direct negotiations for the first time in a decade, and Beijing has not only allowed Taiwan to acquire observer status at the World Health Organisation but has stopped trying to wean away the two dozen countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei. The Chinese Communist Party even sent Ma a congratulatory letter when he was elected chairman of the Kuomintang - a gesture that would have been highly improbable only a few years ago. For its part, Taiwan dropped its provocative annual bid to get a seat in the UN General Assembly.

True, not all manifestations of tensions have disappeared. Most troubling, Beijing has not reduced the number of missiles that it deploys across the strait from Taiwan. But, on the whole, relations between Beijing and Taipei are far better today than they have been since the early 1990s. From Beijing's perspective, that thaw became possible because of the conciliatory attitude that Ma and the KMT have adopted. That political development came as a great relief to Beijing following eight years of confronting Chen and his independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

If Ma and the KMT cannot sustain their political dominance, it is uncertain how long the improvement in cross-strait tensions will last. Beijing is clearly worried and is careful to avoid taking any action that might cause further problems for Ma. That became apparent in late August when Ma gave permission to the Dalai Lama to visit the island. Eight years earlier, Beijing responded with vehement denunciations regarding a similar visit.

This time, the reaction was muted, and most telling, mainland officials directed their fire at the DPP for inviting him, largely ignoring the point that Ma had approved the visit (as part of an effort to revive his flagging domestic popularity). Beijing's uncharacteristic restraint suggests just how concerned mainland leaders are about Ma's political future.

Unfortunately, Ma and the KMT seem intent on shooting themselves in the foot. On September 11, a KMT-controlled court convicted Chen and his wife of corruption charges and sentenced them to life in prison. That move has probably made Chen, who left office with woeful levels of popularity, into a political martyr and galvanised the DPP.

Washington has been relieved at the easing of tensions between Taipei and Beijing, but that sense of relief may prove only temporary if the DPP regains power. The political situation on Taiwan is now highly volatile. The Taiwan issue, which has been largely off the list of global crisis spots since the spring of 2008, threatens to return to prominence. The Barack Obama administration would be wise to start making some contingency plans.