Largely ignored by the mainstream media, Friday’s Taiwan elections have enormous implications not only for the Island’s 25 million people, but for China – and the U.S.
Ironically, the election of the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] leader, Tsai Ing-wen, a woman at that — reinstalled a movement dedicated to maintaining Taiwan’s separate identity, the Island remains essentially a Chinese culture. It marks only a second time in its 2,000-year a Chinese entity has peacefully transferred power. The DPP earlier won power in 100-1008 as a minority government.
The meeting last fall of Beijing’s Pres. Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s outgoing Pres. Ma Ying-jeou was not only unprecedented, but finally marked the tacit recognition by the Communists of the Island’s stature. Beijing now has to bite its lip, having apparently Communist leadership thought that protocol concession after six decades would help Ma’s Party.
Tsai’s victory speech was a ringing declaration for preservation of the current status quo and a call on Beijing to avoid provocations. With slightly hunched shoulders, shy for a public figure, 59-year-old Tsai made it clear she and her Party – a large section dedicated to formal independence – would oppose amalgamation with the Mainland. That flies in the face of the Communists’ claim that Taiwan is an integral part of “One China” which Taiwan and Mainland leadership acknowledged to reduce tensions in 1992. Meanwhile, Beijing refuses to renounce force in resolving the relationship between the two countries.
The defeat of Tsai’s opposition, the Kuomintang, was to a considerable extent a reaction to Ma’s series of economic agreements with Xi and a movement toward some political arrangement. A downturn in the Taiwan economy and increased unemployment also played a large role.
In part, of course, Ma’s concessions to Mainland integration were only recognizing the Island’s growing economic ties to the Communists. Taiwanese economic relations are now a significant economic force for both Mainland China and Taiwan. Two-way trade is well over $350-billion, with the transfer of technology and resident Taiwanese management an important element in the Mainland rapid economic growth. More recently Taiwan authorities have permitted Mainland investment, including a highly controversial Chinese Mainland $2.7 billion participation in Taiwan’s semiconductor industry
Washington’s relationship to the Taiwan regime has fluctuated. When the Kuomintang [Nationalist] leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949after his defeat by the Communists, Washington endorsed Chiang’s effort to reconquer the Mainland. [U.S. clandestine forces aided Nationalist military who had spilled over the borders into Burma, Thailand and Nepal.] During the Korean War, more than 20,000 former Nationalist soldiers defected from Communist North Korea to U.S.-led forces to join their old comrades in Taiwan. In 1958, when Beijing threatened to invade Taiwan, the U.S. responded with an implied threat to use nuclear weapons to prevent a Mainland takeover. When Pres. Jimmy Carter swapped recognition of “China” from Taiwan to the Communists, a rebellion of Congressional Taiwan sympathizers passed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 pledging continued U.S. defense of Taiwan including arming its forces.
Meanwhile Taiwan has become an economic powerhouse – the fifth largest in Asia and 19th in worldwide purchasing power — with what now looks like stable political institutions. Real growth has averaged about 8% over the past three decades. Old labor-intensive businesses have been steadily shoved off-shore, replaced with more capital- and technology-intensive industries.
But Taiwan is again more than an important trading partner for the U.S. [roaring toward $65 billion both ways in 2015.] With an increasingly aggressive China threatening freedom of the seas in the East China and South China seas, it again has taken on strategic importance. In December Washington after dragging its feet through the Bush and Obama Administrations finally okayed $1.8 billion in weapons for Taiwan over Communist objections. Although the package, to be delivered over several years, contains two decommissioned US Navy frigates, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles and amphibious assault vehicles, most observers see it as inadequate to deter any Mainland military adventure.
Maintaining a stable and democratic Taiwan is an essential part of any American Asian strategy. It needs to be high on the list for reexamination by the new president in 2017. The issue is pressing all the more given the Obama Administration’s failing effort for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announced “pivot to Asia” to meet the growing threat of Chinese aggression.