Ma’s re-election and Taiwan’s future

It’s almost a consensus among most observers that the re-election of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jou means continued cross-straits stability, as he would certainly follow up on his policy of forging greater economic integration with the Chinese Mainland. Some, however, think that, on the contrary, a second term for President Ma could in fact result to greater instability characterized by intense Chinese pressure on Taiwan to yield to a number of demands.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an advocate for Taiwanese independence, had clearly wanted to reverse President Ma’s pro-China policy; although its standard-bearer, Tsai Ing-wen, framed her campaign on socio-economic issues that resonated well with the ordinary Taiwanese. For his part, President Ma argued that continued friendship with the Mainland is more conducive to development. Tsai called this view naive, saying closer integration with the People’s Republic is dangerous.

Not surprisingly, both China and the United States supported President Ma’s candidacy. There is a variety of factors behind America’s support for the President, the most important of which is the fact that the United States cannot afford any complications in China-Taiwan relations at this time. Despite their recent attempts to assure their Asian allies of support on the South China Sea dispute and to reach out to Myanmar, the Americans are still trying to co-opt China into the international order by seeking its assistance in a variety of multilateral initiatives.

The reasons behind China’s support, on the other hand, is quite obvious. And indeed, these reasons form the premise of the arguments of those saying that President Ma’s re-election could mean instability in the status quo of China-Taiwan relations.

The stability of the said status quo is contingent on a 1992 consensus, forged by the Communist Party of China and President Ma’s Koumintang (Nationalist Party), stating that both sides acknowledge that there is only one China, to which Taiwan belongs, although both sides are free to define what that one China means. In short, both sides agreed to shelve any discussion on the political status of Taiwan to the back-burner. President Chen Shui-bian rejected this consensus and pushed for independence during his eight-year term, leading to a very unstable China-Taiwan relationship, but President Ma reversed him, allowing Taiwan to forge economic ties with Beijing without jeopardizing its political status, as agreed upon in the 1992 consensus.

Closer economic integration between the two Chinas means that Beijing, being the larger economy, could gain greater leverage over Taipei. This leverage, coupled with the perception that the Mainland-born President Ma is accommodating to Beijing, could encourage China to abandon the 1992 consensus and raise the issue of Taiwan’s political status with the government in Taipei. This could mean pressuring President Ma to agree to a formal cross-straits negotiations on a One China, Two Systems formula. Such a formula would almost certainly lead to Taiwan becoming a special administrative region of China just like Hong Kong and Macau, something that, according to polls, most Taiwanese reject.

Even if Beijing doesn’t immediately push for a One China, Two Systems formula, some observers think that the Mainland might still pressure Taiwan to succumb to a number of demands in the short term. In an essay on this week’s issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, for instance, University of Southern California (USC) Associate Professor of International Relations Daniel Christopher Lynch argues that, with China’s expectations raised after President Ma’s re-election, “Beijing might call upon Taiwan to stop purchasing weapons from the United States, phase out its institutionalized military ties with Washington, and formalize the 1992 consensus into law.” Professor Lynch admits, however, that such demands would not “appear on the immediate horizon, partly because China itself is currently tense with anticipation of this year’s coming leadership transition.”

Indeed, I don’t think any pressure from China on Taiwan to take their relationship to the next level would come during the duration of President Ma’s second term. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is set to succeed President Hu Jintao this year, would most likely need all the time and political capital he can get to consolidate his hold on power, so he would therefore be busy with domestic affairs. But one can never really tell. In light of the alleged rise in the influence of the conservatives among the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the aftermath of the recent power struggle between President Hu and former President Jiang Zemin, and its perceived link to the dramatic change of China’s East Asia policy from one characterized by “peaceful rise” to one of assertiveness, one can no longer discount the distinct possibility that perhaps going hard on Taiwan would be a requirement for the next Chinese president to consolidate power.

Therefore, without jeopardizing the gains made from the normalization of cross-strait economic ties, President Ma must be prepared for any Chinese pressure, should it come. As Professor Lynch wrote, nothing less than the future of one of Asia’s most advanced democracies is at stake.