Jack Nitschke examines modern relations between China and Taiwan.
The relief was palpable in both Beijing and Washington, upon the re-election of Ma Ying-Jeou (KMT) as President of the Republic of China (as Taiwan must anachronistically continue to call itself) on the 14th January 2012. Scraping in with 51.6% of the vote over his nearest rival, Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Mr. Ma can be said to enter his second four year term with a clear mandate to continue his policy of engagement with the Communist Mainland. After 8 years of abrasive incompetence under the Democratic Progressive Party of Chen Shui-Bian (now serving a 20 year prison sentence for embezzlement), Mr Ma’s policy of engagement with the mainland has brought not only significantly increased wealth, but it has improved relations with the Communists to a degree hitherto thought impossible. Mainland tourists visit the island in droves, as do Taiwanese the mainland. Mr. Ma has deftly skirted around the delicate issue of Taiwan’s status by declaring his belief, alongside that of China’s President, Hu Jintao, in the existence of “One China”, conveniently never elaborating upon what exactly he means by that. Despite these successes, the narrowing margin of victory (he won in 2008 with 58% of the vote) suggests that Taiwanese voters are growing increasingly wary of Mr. Ma’s cosiness with the mainland, which obstinately treats Taiwan as if it is a renegade province rather than the functioning democratic society that it is.
The issue of Taiwanese sovereignty has become the defining issue of the beleaguered island’s politics since free elections first began. The two major parties take markedly different stance of the issue. The Kuomintang, which now controls the Presidency and the Legislature (losing 17 seats), clings to the territorial claims of the pre-1949 Republic of China, which include Mongolia, along with parts of India and Kazakhstan, whilst the opposition DPP supports the notion of an independent Taiwan, despite the outrage this provokes within the government of the mainland. Ruling from 2000 until 2008, the DPP squandered almost all of its goodwill through a combination of gross, blatant corruption at home, and moronic sabre rattling across the strait. After a punishing 2008 election it has, despite its defeat, managed to claw back credibility and establish itself as an effective opposition after years of languishing under the weight of high profile corruption scandals. Tsai Ing-Wen seemed to perform a miracle in bringing her party back from the dead, and presenting it as a viable, sane alternative to the incumbent establishment.
The positions held by both political camps are something of a quagmire, as China has stated unequivocally that anything remotely representing a declaration of independence will be met with military force. So, despite rhetoric and the aggressive nature of Taiwanese politics (where it is not uncommon for politicians to physically attack each other in public), both sides are forced to accept the bizarre status quo, where Taiwan sits as a potential final battleground for a civil war that technically hasn’t ended yet. Mr. Ma has been wise to dance around the issue, hoping to placate the communists with diplomacy and lucrative trade; so far he has succeeded, but the ominous tone of the Communist Party’s “One China” policy makes the inhabitants of the beleaguered island wary of becoming too cosy with mainlanders.
Assuming that China does not see fit to invade, it stands to reason that it inevitably will have to acknowledge de jure the independence that Taiwan has enjoyed since 1949. With this in mind, the results of the election should make all Taiwanese feel increasingly confident about the future of their island, which is increasingly asserting an independent cultural identity as well as a political one.
Mr. Ma’s approach to China seems a sensible one, ignoring the gargantuan issue of independence for as long as it is not prudent to act decisively upon it. The United States seems to welcome his strategy as well, no doubt horrified at the prospect of a resurgent Chinese Civil War in which it would be obliged to intervene. China for its part seems adverse to any potential conflict and delighted with the approach Mr. Ma has taken. Things can’t go on like this forever though. If this election is any sign, it is that Taiwanese voters fear a vengeful militant China, but they also fear the status quo continuing as it is, condemning them to diplomatic isolation and the uncertainty of existing only as a political anachronism.