U.S. officials and much of the East Asian business and political communities breathed a sigh of relief on January 14 when Ma Ying-jeou won re-election as Taiwan’s president. Even a few months ago, that outcome seemed uncertain. A disgruntled public still blamed Ma for the country’s economic recession (although a fairly robust recovery was under way), and his administration was excoriated for its bungled relief effort in the wake of Typhoon Morakot.
His strategy of trying to deepen economic and political ties with mainland China also remained controversial. True, a majority of Taiwanese had rejected the confrontational policies of Ma’s predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, who pushed a vigorous pro-independence agenda that led to repeated cross-strait tensions, but a substantial portion of the public fretted that Ma was being too accommodating to Beijing. Consequently, his victory with more than 51 percent of the vote reassured those people in East Asia and the United States who worried that the election might produce a new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president and a return to the tensions that marked Chen’s administration.
Ma’s re-election does promise a continuation of stable, relatively cordial relations between Taipei and Beijing over the next four years. And Ma made it clear in his victory speech that he intended to deepen the economic links between Taiwan and the mainland. Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate the significance of the election outcome—especially over the long term.
Although Ma’s victory margin was comfortable, it was hardly a landslide that would allow him to claim a strong popular mandate for closer ties to Beijing. Indeed, the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, ran a strong race, winning 46 percent of the vote. That was a dramatic improvement over the DPP’s miserable performance in the last presidential election. Taiwan’s persistent political divisions—especially regarding policy toward the mainland—were even more evident in the outcome of the voting for the national legislature. Ma’s Kuomintang Party (KMT) won a solid majority of the seats, but that majority shrank dramatically from the last round four years ago when the DPP was virtually obliterated as a legislative force. The new legislature, while it will be generally supportive of Ma’s initiatives, is not likely to be a rubber stamp.
It is not entirely clear how strong pro-independence sentiments remain in Taiwan. Tsai’s candidacy may actually have blurred that issue. She was a member of the pragmatic “pale green” faction of the DPP, in marked contrast to Chen, who had been a champion of the staunchly pro-independence “deep green” faction. Whether sentiment for Taiwan’s explicit, formal independence surges again will be determined in future elections and will depend heavily on whether Ma’s conciliatory policies toward the mainland succeed in his second term. The impending leadership succession in Beijing later this year may also play a decisive role. A key issue is whether the new administration eases the PRC’s menacing military posture and rewards Ma’s approach with significant political and diplomatic concessions, or whether Beijing’s policies toward the island harden. If the latter occurs, it will produce a backlash on Taiwan.
The most sobering realization is that Taiwan’s election results and the prospect of continued quiescence in cross-strait relations over the next four years create little change in the long-term dynamics. Those dynamics remain worrisome. True, Beijing has responded to Ma’s initiatives by easing its campaign to strangle Taiwan diplomatically. There have been fewer attempts to pressure or bribe the some two dozen governments that still recognize Taipei to switch their diplomatic relations to the PRC. But that is one of the few substantive concessions the Chinese government has made. It still tends to resist Taipei’s efforts to gain membership in international organizations. And most important, China has not withdrawn the more than 1,300 missiles arrayed across the strait from Taiwan, nor has Beijing renounced the use of force to achieve Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland. Indeed, eventual reunification remains Beijing’s explicit goal.
But that goal is anathema to most Taiwanese. That’s especially true as long as the mainland has an authoritarian, one-party political system. Public opinion polls show support for re-unification–absent China’s full democratization—in the high single digits or very low double digits. Although a majority of Taiwanese did not support the previous DPP administration’s provocative policies toward Beijing, it is equally apparent that there is little current sentiment for reunification with the mainland.
Attitudes regarding re-unification with a transformed, democratic China are more favorable, but still ambiguous. The KMT’s rationale is that Taiwan can serve as a democratic model for the mainland, and that Ma’s cautious, conciliatory approach to cross-straits relations advances that objective. But there are few signs that the mainland will become democratic in the foreseeable future, and a substantial portion of Taiwan’s population opposes re-unification even with a democratic China.
The 2012 election results do little to alter those factors. That continued resistance to reunification combined with China’s continued determination to achieve that goal produces a prolonged, perhaps unsolvable, stalemate. It also creates the prospect of a nasty collision in the future. Beijing is unlikely to tolerate indefinitely an upstart, de facto-independent island 100 miles off its own shores, especially as China’s economic and military power continues to grow.
Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election has prolonged the respite in tensions between Taiwan and the mainland. That development is welcomed in capitals throughout East Asia as well as in Washington. But the day of reckoning regarding the Taiwan’s status has merely been postponed, it has not been eliminated.
That leaves the United States in a delicate and potentially dangerous position. Washington has strong economic and diplomatic incentives to maintain good relations with an emerging great power—especially one that funds so much U.S. Treasury debt. At the same time, the United States has a commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to assist Taiwan’s defense and to regard any coercive moves by Beijing regarding the island as a grave breach of the peace in East Asia.
The good news is that, thanks to Ma’s re-election, Washington probably will not have to confront that dilemma in the next four years. The bad news is that, despite the election result, a future U.S. administration will very likely have to do so. A wise approach would be to use this fortunate respite to re-assess U.S. policy on the Taiwan issue and reduce America’s risk exposure before a new crisis erupts.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.