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Taiwan’s presidential elections, since they first started in 1996, have in large part been referendums on the “One China” policy. Voters have been offered two deviations from the delicious ambiguity of the status quo: either a path towards eventual re-unification with mainland China or a dangerous path towards independence. Taiwan’s grand old party, the Kuomintang (KMT), espouses the former, while the Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours the latter.
The stakes, obviously, are high for Beijing — whose leaders have tried, unsuccessfully, bullying, coercion and suasion to influence the Taiwanese voter. But the stakes are also high for the Indo-Pacific region because Taiwan is critical to the stability of US-China relations, especially at a time when they both are attempting to move away from the confrontation of the past two years.
Neither China nor the United States wants the Taiwanese voter to rock the boat. Both had let it be known that they would prefer the incumbent president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, to win. In the event, on Saturday, the Taiwanese people agreed. But not before pre-election opinion polls showed that the election would go down to the wire, prompting thousands of expatriate Taiwanese from places like Silicon Valley to crowd into flights back to the island to cast their ballot.
That Ma found himself neck-to-neck with Tsai Ing-yen, his DPP challenger, is interesting. Four years ago, he was voted in after people felt that the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was taking Taiwan into dangerous waters with his pro-independence line. Ma delivered on his campaign promise of closer ties with the mainland, sealing a major trade deal with China in 2010, boosting trade, travel, communications and investments.
China-Taiwan trade is currently around $160 billion. Taiwanese investors pumped in close to $40 billion in the four years of Ma’s first term. Chinese investors reciprocated, albeit only to the tune of $170 million. Increasing the number of direct flights to almost 100 a day brought in 2 million Chinese tourists and $3 billion in receipts. There has been a parallel improvement in official relations between Beijing and Taipei, as much in form as in substance.
Why then did Ma face a tough election? One answer is what we would call an anti-incumbency effect. As he admitted last month, there were some economic goals his government failed to achieve, especially those relating to employment and income growth. The other answer, one that goes beyond economic angst and back to the China-Taiwan question, might be a preference by voters to drag deviations from the status quo to the middle. As Russell Hsiao, a political analyst, wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s “China Brief” last month, a majority of Taiwanese people want to perpetuate the status quo and will punish politicians who stray too far from it. This might also explain both the closeness of the contest and the verdict itself.
Over in Beijing, Ma’s victory is seen as vindication and a political triumph for President Hu Jintao. In the internal dynamics of the Communist Party of China, it is likely to empower individuals and factions close to Hu, influencing the pecking order of the new administration that will take over after this year’s party congress. Also, as Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based commentator, points out, “if the KMT continues to rule, one can assume that tensions will be lowered further and the [People’s Liberation Army] will have no reason to ask for a higher budget.” To the extent that the issue of Taiwan’s status becomes less of a thorn in Beijing’s side, the political salience of the hawkish factions will, on the margin, diminish. This in turn can help reduce tensions with the United States.
In Washington, some commentators have already begun asking whether it makes sense to continue to allow Taiwan to poison relations between the United States and China. While it is unlikely that such a policy reversal is in the offing, it is already clear that Washington would prefer a Taiwan that doesn’t raise the temperature in East Asia. Washington’s strategic calculus, like that of the other major powers in Indo-Pacific, is about shaping a favourable balance of power, not triggering a military confrontation.
India faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the geopolitical stability suggested by a KMT government means greater economic opportunities for India to engage Taiwan. Compared to Japan, South Korea and Singapore, our bilateral trade and investment with Taiwan is negligible. The country accounts for one per cent of India’s foreign trade. At 0.03 per cent of the total foreign direct investment in India, Taiwan ranks below countries like Chile and Turkey. Bilateral trade agreements can help, but only if domestic reforms make India relatively more attractive as an investment destination.
On the other hand, a Beijing less preoccupied with issues in its backyard will find it easier to project power elsewhere, including against India.
Geoeconomic opportunities are, thus, stacked against geopolitical risks. So unless New Delhi uses the space created by Saturday’s elections to rapidly scale up economic ties, India will have little upside from Ma’s success.
The author is a founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution, an independent networked think tank on strategic affairs