Ma Ying-jeou has won the Taiwanese presidency by a significant margin. Congratulations to the victor and commiserations to the loser.
I won’t focus on what lies ahead for Taiwan in terms of domestic policy because no one can really predict what will happen – it will be a case of very certain people having enough differing views that someone will be correct. Personally I wouldn’t bet my life on any one thing happening.
I will briefly mention the losing DPP, as it now needs to rebuild and focus more on domestic bread-and-butter issues that people care about. Harping on about UN membership or a candidate’s US green card will not win an election. What the party needs is a partial purge of the traditionalists in the leadership, who have focused too much on Taiwan’s diplomatic future. Some good recommendations can be found on one of the leading political Taiwan blogs out there, though I don’t think the DPP should be too anti-China anywhere unless relations get worse or do not improve much. A weak opposition is bad for any country, so I hope that the DPP can rebuild and challenge the KMT at future elections, rather than have a return to one-party politics and the increase of corruption that would follow.
The main comment I have to make is relations with China. Ma promised, like his competitor, to improve direct links and negotiate with China – though he has said he will not meet with Hu Jintao or discuss unification. There will be a honeymoon period with China, much like the Taiwanese electorate, in which everyone thinks things can only get better. However, I do wonder whether this will be temporary. Although there is concern amongst some people in Taiwan that Ma will “sell out”, I don’t think that he will – unless one sees things very narrowly through utter and official independence for the island. He isn’t in favour of that, but he does want to preserve the island’s de-facto independence simply because neither he nor the KMT trusts the CCP. Some grand promises were made for Hong Kong’s autonomy, yet after over a decade of unification Beijing is still dragging its feet over full democracy for the territory – recent suggested timescales for reform are not certain, nor is there a fixed method for introducing them.
After a while I believe that Beijing may well get frustrated with Ma for not discussing deeper political change. It will also not appreciate continued arms purchases which will be approved more readily by the KMT-controlled legislative now that it also controls the presidency. If China continues the aggressive poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and bullying on the international stage, such as denying Taiwan direct access to the WHO without its permission, it will have no ability to blame everything on Taiwan as the most China-friendly candidate has won the election. This may help Taiwan’s standing in the international community if it is still bullied, though Ma may find he simply becomes demonised by China like many other political leaders and other countries go along with that because it’s easier.
I would be impressed if Ma can win significant diplomatic concessions from China, as at the moment Beijing is still in denial that its approach to Taiwan is the problem (just as is the case with its view on Tibet). The failure of the two UN referenda will not help his negotiating position, as China will see this as a reason not to give up much. However, Ma will have to still push for better international rights if he wants a second term at the next election – “giving in” to Chinese pressure won’t endear him to the electorate. China and Taiwan will only be able to make a long-term solution when China realises it needs to give Taiwan international space and respect its de-facto independence, even if it doesn’t recognise formal independence. Even if “unification” can occur, it will be in name-only with nothing changing in terms of actual control over the island. Taiwan will demand that China not block its attempts to make free-trade pacts with other nations and may even insist on membership of certain international bodies like the WHO and UN.
Beijing needs to tone down the rampant nationalism that permeates Chinese society and find ways to get Taiwan to trust it. The constant Chinese arms build-up will not force Taiwan to unify, and insistence on using the one country, two system method for the future will not work – Ma has rejected that. A new way of dealing with Taiwan is required, otherwise the chance for heading off formal independence will disappear – much as China’s ability to resolve the Tibetan problem without violence is slipping away.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.