Global impact of Taiwan’s presidential elections

The campaign has been monitored by Beijing, Washington; outcome could affect US-China relations.

By
January 11, 2012 21:48
Taiwanese presidential candidate Tsai

Taiwanese presidential candidate Tsai 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee)

TAIPEI – Unlike Israel, Taiwan does not permit absentee ballots. Thus Liang-Jen Chang, who heads the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Tel Aviv, flew home for two days to cast his vote in the January 14 presidential and legislative elections.

For Chang, the elections are important both personally and politically. If incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou wins a second term, Chang will remain at his post. But if Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Tsai Ing-wen scores the most votes, Chang will likely be replaced.

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President Ma, who heads the Chinese National Kuomintang Party (KMT), is keen to enhance Taiwan’s relations with mainland China, while Tsai (DPP) is more inclined toward withdrawal.

Ma won the 2008 elections, ousting the DPP which had been in power for eight years. The present election campaign has been closely monitored by both Beijing and Washington, because the outcome could affect not only Taiwan-China relations, but also US-China relations.

Although the United States is committed to a One China policy, it was supportive of the cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) which has significantly eased tensions and has resulted in improved communications between China and Taiwan.

Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US, which terminated diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) (ROC) after entering into diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China, (PRC), enacted legislation authorizing de facto diplomatic relations with the governing bodies of Taiwan.

If Ma wins the election the status quo will remain in place with an anticipated further development of economic cooperation between Taiwan and mainland China.

Various Taiwanese officials confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that if Ma loses out to Tsai, the world will witness a gradual deterioration of relations between Taiwan and China. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Timothy Chin-tien Yang, a 40-year veteran of his country’s diplomatic endeavors, in an interview with the Post less than four weeks prior to the elections, sounded a warning note.

If KMT ceases to be the ruling party, he said, Taiwan could find itself diplomatically and possibly economically isolated.

According to a Bloomberg report the last opinion polls conducted by the United Daily News prior to the elections indicated that Ma would receive 44 percent of the vote, giving him a comfortable lead over Tsai who would score 36%. The third candidate, James Soong, the chairman of the People First Party, would receive only 7% of the vote. The China Times and the TVBS Poll Center also showed Ma coming out ahead, with slight differences in the percentage ratios.

Opinion polls can vary according to changing circumstances, who conducts the surveys, and when and where they are carried out. In November, Tsai appeared to be leaping ahead of Ma. More recently, in a survey conducted by the DPP, Tsai was leading Ma by 1%, but the DPP opinion poll may have been carried out in the southern part of the country where Tsai enjoys more support.

It is illegal in Taiwan to publish opinion polls during the 10 days prior to the elections, and offenders have to pay heavy fines, so at this stage of the game it’s impossible to tell whether or not Tsai has narrowed or bridged the gap between her and Ma.

TAIWANESE OFFICIALS often like to draw comparisons between Taiwan and Israel, but other than extraordinary accomplishments in science and technology, an obsession with food and the preservation of cultural legacies that are thousands of years old, there is no comparison.

Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by the Taiwan Straits, whereas Israel and the Palestinian Authority are separated by checkpoints and security fences. Taiwan has full diplomatic relations with only 23 countries, while Israel, despite efforts to delegitimize its existence, maintains diplomatic ties with 160 countries.

To be fair Taiwan does have what Foreign Minister Yang calls “substantive relations” with more than 80 countries. Taiwan maintains 118 overseas offices, some of which are Consulates General, while others are representative offices, such as that in Tel Aviv.

Just as Israel once suffered the effects of the Arab boycott, so Taiwan has suffered the effects of the Chinese veto ever since 1971 when Taiwan was forced to leave the United Nations.

In the aftermath, one country after another suspended relations. The situation forced Taiwan to become creative and to develop representative offices under a series of different names.

As mainland China became an increasingly important player in the global economy, both China and Taiwan realized that it would be mutually beneficial to focus on those areas in which they could cooperate and leave the issue of sovereignty – their core point of dispute – in abeyance.

At a meeting in 1992 between quasi-official representatives of the PRC and the ROC, there was consensus between the two sides that there is only one China, to which both mainland China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC) belong, but the two sides agreed to disagree on the verbal interpretation of the One China principle and on the issue of sovereignty.

The PRC sees itself as the sole legitimate representative of China, whereas the ROC claims that since it was established a hundred years ago and the PRC came into existence only in 1949, the ROC should have sovereignty over the whole of China.

The DPP disagrees, and does not accept what has come to be known as the 1992 Consensus. The DPP wants Taiwan to be a separate, independent entity. In other words it advocates what in the Middle East is known as a two-state solution, namely one China and one Taiwan.

Thus if Tsai wins the elections, there is an acute danger that many of the economic gains achieved by Ma will be undermined as cross-strait relations become increasingly strained, while Tsai strives to make Taiwan more independent.

TAIWANESE GOVERNMENT officials from Foreign Minister Yang downwards constantly referred to the 16 economic agreements that have been signed between the ROC and PRC during Ma’s term. President Ma in various media interviews frequently noted how beneficial such agreements were to Taiwan, but Tsai is wary of placing so much dependence on the PRC and wants to develop more markets in other countries. To do so, she has said, will mean the creation of more jobs in Taiwan and will narrow the widening gap between the poor and the affluent.

The bitter fight between Taiwan and mainland China in winning diplomatic relations damages the international image of both countries, said Yang.

“In the end, no-one actually benefits from this tug-of-war.”

Whenever relations with mainland China worsened, he said, diplomatic efforts did not produce desired results. There was always a vicious interaction which President Ma decided had to be rechanneled into positive interaction.

“We want to change from a vicious to a virtuous cycle, and to accumulate goodwill in our work with each other,” said Yang. “Relations have been very confrontational for more than 60 years. No-one can solve the problem of sovereignty overnight. We have to put aside the issue of sovereignty because we cannot solve the problem, so let’s try to work on something that will benefit both sides.”

Taiwan’s policy in its approach to China is that of peacemaker, he said.

“We have to be both realistic and pragmatic.

We have to find common ground and deal with China with wisdom. We believe that dialogue is an approach that will lead to a less confrontational and less dangerous situation.”

Dialogue had been more or less suspended during the DPP administration, and was resumed in 2008 soon after Ma took office.

The Taiwan presidential elections are more than a matter of politicians running for the presidency, he stressed.

“We may lose or compromise our sovereignty. If you deal with mainland China based on the 1992 Consensus, you will always have the interests of Taiwan in your heart. Not dealing with mainland China is not a solution. You cannot hide your head in the sand.”

DEALING WITH China has also brought about an influx of tourism. During 2011, said Dr. Chien-Min Chao, the Deputy Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, over two million people visited Taiwan from mainland China.

“When the channel with China was blocked, it affected Taiwan’s visibility to the world.”

Tourism from other parts of Asia as well as Europe and the US has soared from 3.7 million in 2008 to more than six million in 2011.

“It took us 15 years to get to a figure of one million tourists and 30 years to get to the second million” Chao said by way of illustrating the rapid pace of development over the past three years.

There are now 558 weekly flights between Taiwan and China, whereas prior to the 2008 elections, there were none.

Taiwan has been working toward direct flights between Israel and Taiwan, and this may come about sooner rather than later with the signing last week of an Air Transportation Agreement aimed at paving the way for the establishment of direct passenger and cargo flights between Israel and Taiwan. Passengers flying between the two countries today have to take connecting flights from Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore.

Chao is optimistic that if Ma is re-elected and everything goes well over the next four years, Taiwan’s incoming tourism figures will rise to 10 million.

This is important not only to Taiwan’s economy, he emphasized, but also to Taiwan’s visibility.

As far as visibility is concerned, one sees very few non-Asian faces in Taipei, and English, though spoken by government officials and hotel staff, is not necessarily spoken in shops or in the street.

On my first night in Taipei, I went exploring, got lost, and could not find anyone in the street – including people gathered at bus stops – who could understand English. Eventually, I entered a small hotel and asked at the reception desk if anyone spoke English. There were six people behind the desk, and five pointed to one person. She took out a map, circled where I was and where I had to go, and told me in which direction to walk. Later, in the street, I looked at the map to check how much further I had to walk, and saw that the map was in Chinese.

As the guest of the government, I had been placed in the beautiful and luxurious Regent Hotel where every guest is treated like royalty, but even there nearly all the literature was in Chinese or Japanese, with only a line or two in English in any paragraph.

Chao and later Tony Ong, the vice-minister of the Government Information Office, each of whom speaks excellent English, agreed that language is a problem in Taiwan, and one that will have to be dealt with quickly if Taiwan wants to have greater appeal to English-speaking travelers.

Wherever one goes one sees Japanese tourists in Taipei, and there are enormous Japanese investments not only in Taipei but in the whole of Taiwan, say Taiwanese officials.

Although the Taiwanese suffered under the Japanese occupation from 1895 to 1945, there is no bitterness toward the Japanese, and there is much Japanese culture infused into Taiwanese culture.

When Japan experienced its tragic earthquake and tsunami last year, donations poured in from many parts of the world, with Taiwan donating more than $176 million, the highest donation from any country.

RETURNING TO the topic of relations with China, Chao noted that in addition to economic cooperation, there is also judicial cooperation that includes a bilateral extradition agreement. In a joint operation between Taiwan and China, said Chao, 1,200 Taiwanese criminals were arrested and brought back to Taiwan for trial.

Criminals can no longer use China or anywhere in South East Asia as a refuge, he said. Taiwan has cooperation agreements with law enforcement officials all over South East Asia.

For Chao, a scholar of Chinese politics and government who came from the world of academia to the political arena, the presidential elections are crucial on a personal level. The outcome may determine whether he stays in politics or returns to the university.

If Tsai wins, he doesn’t have a problem, but if Ma wins, Chao will be forced to weigh his future.

Though progressive in many ways, Taiwan lags behind Israel in workers’ rights and pension rights cannot be transferred from one place of employment to another. If he goes back to the university, he keeps his pension. If he remains in politics, he risks losing his pension.

If Ma is re-elected and Chao stays at his post, he will enter into another round of talks with China on the waiver of tariffs on certain export products. China has so far agreed to waive taxes on 539 products, and follow-up talks were conducted during 2011.

Many Taiwanese business people have invested in China and have created numerous jobs, said Chao. There is a certain irony in the fact that Chinese business enterprises in need of loans often get them from Taiwan, because they can’t get them from other sources.

Even though the Chinese economy is faring well compared to the rest of the world, Chao is working toward some form of investor protection.

Watching the collapse of the economies of various countries has made him wary, especially because Taiwanese investors have invested billions of dollars in China.

“These huge economic interests of Taiwan may be at stake,” he said.

Over the past half year, Taiwan has permitted Chinese investment in Taiwan. No-one is quite sure of the exact volume of the investments, said Chao, but it is estimated at somewhere between $150m. to $200m.

“We don’t want to risk things. We want things to move gradually. We are moving in a very cautious yet open-minded fashion.”

Timothy J. Hwang, director of the Department of Planning and Information Services at the semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation, doubted whether the tariff-free exchange of exports would continue if the DPP wins the elections.

Korea is Taiwan’s major competition in China. Even with no preferential treatment, said Hwang, Korea’s market share in China exceeds that of Taiwan “and the gap is growing.” He was extremely worried about the impact on the Taiwan economy if the DPP triumphs in the elections, because “more than 80,000 Taiwanese firms have invested in China. In addition, there are close to a million Taiwanese, working, studying or doing business in China. Some 4,000 Taiwanese are employed by Chinese investors in Taiwan.”

In 2010, added Hwang, of all the Chinese visitors, 400,000 were on official visits, on cultural exchanges or in Taiwan to do business.

Conversely, Taiwanese firms that have investments in China employ more than 10 million Chinese.

He did not imagine that all this bilateral involvement would come to an instant stop if the DPP gets the most votes, but he forecast a slow-down in commercial activities, which would gradually be down-sized and eventually suspended altogether.

There’s been more progress in bilateral relations in the past three-and-a-half years he said, than in the preceding 20.

The writer was a guest of the Taiwan Economic and Culture Center in Tel Aviv


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