If there was any doubt that Taiwan is the first democratic state in the long history of the Chinese, it came this week in the buildup to January presidential election. The current ruling Kuomintang, descendant of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists who fled the Mainland Communists in 1949, suddenly switched nominees.
At an extraordinary party congress they voted overwhelmingly for party Chairman Eric Chu..Chu, mayor of suburban New Taipei City and a former accounting professor. The former candidate Hung Hsiu-chu had been running about 20 percentage points behind Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen, another female candidate. Tsai advocates greater caution in relations with Beijing, her radical wing proposing formal independence instead of the current ambiguous de facto autonomy.
The KMT was trying to recoup after disastrous parliamentary elections last November, when they paid a price for several deals with a Chinese Communist Party Mainland partner. The KMT, the business community and academic economists, had all argued for them because of the Island’s economic integration with the Mainland and its lackluster economy.
Taiwan-based firms moving to, or collaborating in joint ventures in Mainland China, have fed trade between the two to $198.31 billion, with exports from Taiwan to the Mainland at $152 billion. Cheap Mainland labor assemble high-end components from Taiwan for reexport. But as the Mainland economy has rapidly dived into a slump from record-breaking two decades of rapid growth, the Taiwanese are again turning to Southeast Asia and the U.S. for thrust for their export-led economy
After taking a hard line against the last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian [2000- 2008], Beijing softened toward the current Nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou, but now constitutionally barred from a third four-year term. Ma’s government signed 23 agreements with China to promote investment, tourism and trade, with tensions reduced to their lowest level in more than six decades.
But the growing subversion of Hong Kong despite its autonomy enshrined in the 1997 British agreement to turn it back to Beijing has had its effect. In spring 2014, the Sun Flower Movement, a coalition of students and political activists, occupied the Taiwanese parliament and ministries, demanding detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the 2013 Cross-Trade Service Agreement Ma signed with Beijing.
It’s not at all clear what comes next. China President Xi Jinping in the midst of the most stringent crackdown on political and media activity in several decades, struggling to concentrate power in his hands rather than the recent collegiate Communist Party leadership. Xi reputedly knows as much as any senior Chinese official about the Taiwan issue, having served as governor of a Mainland province facing it. Bringing Taiwan and the Singkiang Uighur and Tibetan dissidents under Beijing control has been one of Xi’s main goals.
The People’s Liberation Army [PLA] has moved ballistic missiles and modern warplanes to bases overlooking the Taiwan Strait. By the end of 2010, the PLA had more than 2,000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, 50 percent more than just two years earlier, and ten times more than in 2000. A 2007 Rand Corporation report questioned whether the U.S. could fulfill its obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of an all-out Mainland attack. “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is well aware of its own shortcomings and the United States’ military superiority,” the Rand Air Force study said. “Instead of engaging U.S. forces head-on, they would attempt to take advantage of what they perceive to be American weaknesses, including the need to deploy and operate forces thousands of miles from home.”
That is why the current transfer of weaponry to Taiwan waiting approval in the Senate, as well as its reexamination given the new Mainland buildup, is an absolute priority the Obama Administration and Congress should get on with.