Editorial: Taiwan and China Make Strides, Can America Respond?

March 11, 2009

Taiwan and China Make Strides:
Can America Respond?

(Arlington, Virginia, March 11, 2009)

Commentary by Rupert Hammond-Chambers – Brookings Institution: Northeast Asia

On March 22, 2008, Taiwan voters went to the polls and declared a return to Kuomintang (KMT) rule. The KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide election against Frank Hsieh of the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the end result was rarely in question as voter frustration over DPP rule – accumulated over 8 years – spilled over into a convincing 58.45 percent victory for Ma and his running mate Vincent Siew.

Ma’s contention that Taiwan’s economy had fared poorly from 2000-2008 played well to Taiwan’s electorate – somewhat unfairly, as in fact Taiwan enjoyed average annual GDP growth of 3.63 percent during that period, according to the National Statistics Database maintained by Taiwan’s Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS). But voter perception was centered on missed opportunities and a Taiwan that had mostly stood still for eight years while its regional competitors advanced their interests.

But Ma won the election also by highlighting the angst that former President Chen Shui-bian had caused Taiwan’s most important interlocutors – China and the United States. China was never interested in offering President Chen a dialogue during his 8 years as president of Taiwan, other than under terms and conditions that ran contrary to DPP principles. However, President Chen’s diplomatic isolation was exacerbated by his rhetoric that so often caught policymakers in Beijing and Washington off guard. This left the Chinese increasingly concerned about Chen’s intentions – even in the face of obvious constitutional limitations on his power – and left the U.S. frustrated both with constant Chinese harping and Chen’s erratic behavior. This tense situation appeared to cast a shadow over much else that the Bush administration was attempting to accomplish in its relationship with China.

Fairly or unfairly, the picture that evolved – particularly after Chen’s second election victory in March of 2004 – was of a Taiwan actively undermining peace and security in north Asia, and by extension hurting its own commercial and diplomatic interests. This perception neatly teed up candidate Ma’s campaign, where he pitched Taiwan voters on the importance of returning to the safe and steady hands of the technocratic KMT and of addressing Taiwan’s core economic, domestic and foreign relationships.

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