China May Be Allied With U.S. in Preferring Ma Win in Taiwan

Ma Ying-jeou Greets Supporters in Taipei
Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan President, is greeted by supporters as he campaigns for re-election in Shanshia district, in New Taipei City. Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

China and the U.S., at loggerheads over everything from trade to human rights, have a common interest in the outcome of this week’s Taiwan presidential election: a victory by President Ma Ying-jeou.

The U.S. “rewarded” Ma with visits last month by a deputy energy secretary and the head of USAID, the highest-level trips by American officials in more than 10 years, and may allow visa-free travel, said Douglas Paal, formerly head of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy. China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, didn’t protest, instead saying that victory by Ma’s main opponent would be a step backward.

For China, Ma’s re-election on Jan. 14 would help cement a key legacy of President Hu Jintao’s decade-long rule -- the peaceful enmeshing of Taiwan into the mainland’s economic orbit, with Taiwanese investment in China rising to $12.2 billion in 2010, up 26 percent from 2007, the year before Ma took office. While the U.S. says it’s not taking sides, a Ma victory may make historically close ties with Taiwan less likely to hurt mainland relations as the Obama administration seeks Chinese support for curbing nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.

“The U.S. very much wants continued calm across the Taiwan Strait, lest new tensions undermine the fragile cooperation built up with China over the past 16 months and in a consequential political year in the U.S. and China,” said Paal, now vice president at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Closer Links

Ma, 61, head of the Kuomintang Party, has brought Taiwan closer economically and politically with the mainland since taking office in 2008, ending a six-decade ban on direct air, sea and postal links, reducing tariffs and boosting two-way investment.

Ma said at a Jan. 8 rally that cross-straits relations were at their best in 60 years, and that ties had benefits as well as risks. At a briefing today, he said he had asked China not to get involved in the upcoming elections and promised he won’t be pressured to make any political deals with China if he wins a second term.

Maintain Status Quo

“Mainland China knows they won’t achieve their ultimate political goal in the short-term, so they must ease tension,” Ma told reporters in Taipei. “Maintaining the status quo can’t harm China, they’ve got nothing to lose from it.”

In China, gone are the days when Chinese propaganda officials churned out epithets against Taiwanese leaders, including former Kuomintang president Lee Teng-hui, who served until 2000 and was branded a “rat” for his policy of moving Taiwan toward sovereignty. At one popular Taiwanese restaurant in Beijing, Ma’s photo graces the entryway.

Ma was widening his narrow lead over Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen in public opinion polls taken prior to a blackout period for voter surveys that began Jan. 4. Taiwanese law bars publication or release of polls 10 days prior to presidential elections.

Tsai’s Platform

Tsai says that while she wants good relations with China, closer economic links could lead to Taiwan bartering away its autonomy. In a Nov. 17 interview, Tsai said she differentiates herself from the previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, who angered China with demands for Taiwanese independence, and is “not known as a provocative person.”

“We need to diversify our global relations, our global economic ties,” DPP spokeswoman Hsiao Bi-Khim said at a briefing in Taipei today. “We feel that we need to deal with China along with the rest of the world instead of facing the world only through China.”

Tsai, 55, has said she doesn’t support what the Kuomintang and the Chinese government call the “1992 Consensus,” an agreement between the two that there is only one China, with each party differing on the meaning.

“If Tsai gets elected, there will be a standstill on China-Taiwan relations and all the ongoing negotiations will be suspended,” said Chang Wu-ueh, a professor of political science at Taipei’s Tamkang University.

Trading Partner

China passed the U.S. as Taiwan’s largest trading partner in 2002. Two-way trade reached $160 billion last year, according to Chinese customs statistics, a 10 percent increase from a year earlier.

The Kuomintang’s honorary chairman, Lien Chan, regularly meets with Hu, who calls Lien an “old friend.” They met in November at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, where Lien was first in line to have photos taken with President Barack Obama at a dinner. Taiwan’s Central News Agency touted Lien’s moment in the “international media spotlight.”

Chinese tourists are also flooding into Taiwan, with the total jumping 68 percent to 1.63 million in 2010 as China overtook Japan as the island’s biggest source of visitors. The influx has helped spur expansion among hotel groups including Marriott International Inc. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

‘Good Feelings’

“Piece by piece, little by little, you add mutual trust, and add good feelings about each other,” Lien said in a Nov. 11 interview.

Gone for now are the days when tensions across the Taiwan Strait infected the China-U.S. relationship. China conducted military exercises around Taiwan ahead of Lee’s 1996 victory in the island’s first democratic election and threatened war if Lee won. In response, then-President Bill Clinton deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.

China claims Taiwan as a province and has vowed to reunite the island with the mainland by force if necessary. The two sides have been ruled separately since 1949, when the Kuomintang government fled to the island following its defeat by the Communists in the Chinese civil war.

Not Taking Sides

Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a Jan. 5 statement that the U.S. “does not take sides in the election.”

“We will work, within the parameters of our existing unofficial relationship, with whomever the people of Taiwan elect,” Nuland said.

Cui Tiankai, China’s vice foreign minister overseeing ties with the U.S., told reporters in Beijing on Jan. 9 that the Obama administration is “very aware” of China’s position with regard to Taiwan. He declined to answer a question about whether the U.S. and Chinese positions on the Taiwan election were aligned.

“Where the U.S. and Chinese interests coincide are that both sides want to see a stable environment across the strait and don’t want to see a return to the environment that we had during the last DPP presidency,” said Paul Haenle, who served as the director for China and Taiwan at the White House National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations from 2007-2009.

“The administration probably has concluded that stability would be easier achieved under Ma, but they would still try to achieve that stability under Tsai Ing-wen: they don’t have a choice,” he said.

— With assistance by Michael Forsythe, and Nick Wadhams

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