Taiwan Strait Tightrope

This article appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal on March 18, 2008.
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Ma Ying-jeou’s impending victory in Taiwan’s presidential election Saturday promises to usher in a period of relative calm in the island’s turbulent relations with mainland China. Mr. Ma’s Kuomintang Party is determined to end the bold and provocative policies that President Chen Shui‐​bian has pursued toward Beijing over the past eight years. Beijing and Washington will both be relieved to have a government committed to preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait rather than pushing the envelope on a transition from de facto to de jure independence.

But just how calm relations will be even in the short term will depend at least as much on China’s actions as on Mr. Ma’s policies. Beijing has an opportunity to maintain the momentum toward peace and stability, but it remains to be seen whether Chinese leaders will be wise enough to seize the moment. President Chen’s strategy of antagonizing Beijing by such measures as substituting “Taiwan” for “China” in the names of state‐​run corporations, purging most Chinese history from Taiwanese school textbooks, and seeking admission to the United Nations under the name “Taiwan” understandably made sensible Taiwanese nervous, but Mr. Ma must show that his more subtle and conciliatory approach will reduce tensions and bring tangible benefits.

Taiwanese voters across the political spectrum are most concerned about Beijing’s continued deployment of missiles targeted against the island. There are now more than 1,000 missiles in position, and that number is increasing at the rate of about a dozen per month. Given the emergence of a friendlier government in Taipei, China should at least freeze the deployments, and ideally begin to draw down the arsenal. If the provocative buildup continues, the pro‐​independence Democratic Progressive Party will exploit the issue to undermine Mr. Ma.

The same pattern will occur if China does not abandon its strategy of diplomatic strangulation against Taiwan. Thanks largely to pressure and bribes from Beijing, the number of countries that still recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) has now dwindled to 23 mostly small nations in Africa and the Caribbean. There was some logic to Beijing’s strategy when President Chen repeatedly adopted measures to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty and separate national identity. Chinese officials wanted to demonstrate to Taipei that such conduct was counterproductive and would only increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation. The same consideration motivated China’s effort to exclude Taiwan from membership in international bodies, including even relatively apolitical ones like the World Health Organization.

For China to maintain that strategy against a KMT government, though, would be folly. It would convince even moderate Taiwanese that there was little to gain from adopting more conciliatory policies. If that attitude takes hold, the period of majority support for the KMT could be short‐​lived.

Even in the arena of economic policy, China must be careful not to overplay its hand. Taiwanese businesses already have a large economic stake in the mainland, but Mr. Ma is committed to easing the remaining limits on investments substantially. He also favors direct air and sea links between Taiwan and the mainland. These measures would significantly strengthen cross‐​Strait ties and act as a major factor for peace and stability.

But Beijing dare not interpret those policy changes as an opportunity to press Mr. Ma’s government for steps toward reunification. The overwhelming majority of Taiwanese want to maintain the status quo — and the status quo means de facto independence for the island. There is almost no support for reunification in the near term. An August 2007 public opinion poll by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council showed that a paltry 2.8% favored “unification as soon as possible,” and a mere 12.3% advocated “maintaining the status quo with unification later.”

Conversely, 10.3% favored “independence as soon as possible,” and 16.5% “maintaining the status quo with independence later.” The largest bloc, 34.9%, advocated “maintaining the status and deciding on independence or unification later,” and another 17.9% supported “maintaining the status quo indefinitely.”

Beijing must recognize the limits of Mr. Ma’s ability to satisfy China’s objectives. No KMT government could pursue negotiations for reunification and hope to survive politically. There is no significant Taiwanese constituency in favor of reunification with an authoritarian China. Indeed, there appears to be ambivalence (at best) for reunification even if China were to become democratic.

Mr. Ma himself has set the bar extraordinarily high. In a February 2006 speech at the London School of Economics and Political Science — Mr. Ma’s most detailed speech on cross‐​Strait policy to date — he conceded that reunification might become possible, but only when “developments in mainland China reach a stage when its political democracy, economic prosperity, and social well‐​being become congruent with those of Taiwan.”

The emergence of a KMT presidency may reflect the public’s desire for less provocative and dangerous policies toward the mainland, but it does not diminish Taiwan’s desire to be treated as a sovereign state for the foreseeable future. If China can accept that important but limited improvement in relations, we shall see a period of welcome calm in the Taiwan Strait.

But if China misinterprets the election results and continues to bully Taiwan as part of a strategy to pressure Taipei into reunification, it is likely to find itself facing a new DPP government in four years — and one with a mandate to assert Taiwan’s independence with at least as much vigor as President Chen did. The ball is now in China’s court.