Taiwan’s Ma plays delicate game with weak hand
TAIPEI » Campaigning on the slogan "No independence, no unification, no use of force," candidate Ma Ying-jeou hoped to recapture the president's office for his Kuomintang party and to boost Taiwan's economy by more directly linking it to mainland China.
No sooner inaugurated on May 20, the Ma administration was busy pursuing improved cross-strait economic relations. To pump up Taiwan's tourist industry, 3,000 mainland tourists per day for 10 days are now allowed into Taiwan. Large Taiwan companies were allowed to invest 60 percent of assets in mainland enterprises and mainland capital can be invested in Taiwan.
Despite carrying out campaign promises, Ma's support in a United Daily News opinion poll slipped from 66 percent on May 20 to 50 percent on June 19. Many in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party feared that Taiwan would be instantly united with the mainland. However, few stopped to realize that the DPP had conducted much of the negotiation on those changes but ran out of time in office before the finishing touches could be put in place. Thus, the KMT quickly took up where the DPP had left off. Moreover, those changes were long sought by both Taiwanese businessmen and the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan.
In June, news broke that the U.S. would not be providing 66 F-16Cs and Ds the Taiwan government had repeatedly requested. Which side halted the deal is a matter for speculation. One popular theory was that faced by a failing presidency, President Bush was trying to salvage some sort of legacy. To do so, he didn't want to hurt relations with China, whose help he needed in dealing with North Korea and Iran. Not supplying the combat aircraft would enhance stability in East Asia, a long-term U.S. goal in the region.
The explanation was that the Taiwan government actually wanted to suspend the deal. Taiwan's Liberty Times reported July 14 that the Taiwan government dropped plans to upgrade the Indigenous Defense Fighter, one of three main types of combat aircraft in the ROC Air Force. According to Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, "75 percent of the people in Taiwan do not think that China will attack the island." That being the case, why worry about arms purchases? By foregoing the F-16s, Ma could be hoping to create momentum for a peace treaty with China that could result in the removal of the 1,100-1,400 missiles aimed at Taiwan. Or he might be seeking China's good will in preparation for Taiwan's application to the United Nations.
U.S. Arms to Taiwan
Speaking at a mid-July forum of the Heritage Foundation, in Washington, D.C., Adm. Timothy Keating, Pacific Commander of U.S. Forces, confirmed that there was a freeze on arms sales to Taiwan, calling the decision "administration policy." Officials who made the decision "reconciled Taiwan's military posture, China's current military posture and strategy that indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment arms sales to Taiwan." However, a mere four months before, at the time of the Taiwan presidential election in March, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers, the Kitty Hawk and Nimitz, to waters close to Taiwan to prevent Chinese harassment of the island.
Randy Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Bush administration, co-authored a strongly worded July 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for the resumption of arms sales to Taiwan. Schriver said to deny the weapons to Taiwan would be to undercut its negotiating position and simply put more pressure on the U.S. military to respond in the event of an emergency because Taiwan would be less capable of defending itself. Taiwan is a long-term democratic friend and how the U.S. handles this situation reflects on its image throughout the region. Vice Admiral Lang Ning-li, retired chief of Taiwan Naval Intelligence and researcher at the National Policy Foundation, pointed out, "Air defense and anti-submarine warfare are crucial to Taiwan's defense."
The new F-16s might never be delivered to Taiwan. Their advanced design and ability to deliver cruise missiles casts them as an offensive weapon, while the U.S. prefers to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons only, despite obvious mainland advantages in missile weaponry. However, according to Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy assistant defense secretary under President Bush and Taiwan Business Council chairman, another important weapons package will be delivered that calls for a feasibility study of the U.S. building eight submarines for Taiwan, 30 Apache helicopters, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, spare parts for F-16s and Patriot III anti-missile missiles.
The KMT is in a seemingly enviable position controlling the presidency, the legislature and most county magistrate and city mayor positions. However, 40 percent of the population still voted for the DPP in the presidential election. The KMT is not a monolith, and Ma is not a strong leader. In the parlance of the KMT, Ma is "light blue," or somewhat of a liberal within the party, as compared to the "dark blue" or conservative wing of the party. Because he tried to reach out and appoint people with previous DPP connections to the government positions, he could not consolidate his party's support and had to withdraw the nominations.
Taiwan is a burgeoning democratic society. As such, Taiwan has the only stable two-party democratic system in Northeast Asia. Japan has a one-and-one-half party system, heavily dominated by the Liberal Democrats. The fluid party system in South Korea sees parties appear and then disappear. Whether Taiwan will remain a two-party system is open to question. The legislative elections in January under the new single-member district system reduced the DPP to only 27 seats in the 113-seat chamber.
Lead by former President Chen Sui-bian, eight years of DPP rule deepened Taiwan's democracy, made significant improvements in infrastructure and passed important social legislation, said Soochow University political scientist Lo Chih-cheng. Nevertheless, the DPP's legacy is tarnished. Chen, his wife, former Vice President Annette Lu and five of his ministers have been indicted for corruption.
DPP insiders feel there is little chance that they can make a comeback in the 2012 legislative elections, claiming that the electoral districts favor the KMT. Fielding electable presidential candidates is challenging in that the old guard is pretty much discredited, and it is hard to find anyone under 55 with the enthusiasm, energy and ability to focus on economic issues, rather than persistently calling for independence.
According to a Mainland Affairs Council poll conducted in March, 90 percent of Taiwanese support the status quo. Gains might be made in county magistrate and mayoral elections, but as the KMT proved, its strong local connections built during the long period of martial law are still paying off today. The KMT is considered one of the wealthiest political parties in the world; the DPP has yet to organize an effective fundraising strategy.
Ma needs to carry out the rapprochement with the mainland and disposition of Chen in a manner that consolidates popular support. Even given the economic benefits, too rapidly or extensively engaging with the mainland, has the potential to bring thousands of protesters onto the streets of Taiwan, reminiscent of the 2006 Red Shirt movement seeking to force Chen from office. Despite liberalization in cross-straits relations, it is almost certain that China will block Taiwan's sixteenth attempt to rejoin the U.N. this fall. As a result, Ma and the KMT could lose support. If not carefully handled, the manner in which Ma deals with the indictment, prosecution and possible sentencing of Chen could create major upheaval.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. firstname.lastname@example.org