One Nation, Two Governments
Taiwanese election highlights sovereignty v. cooperation debate
Since the two entities split amid civil war in 1949, China and Taiwan have made this animosity the basis of their relationship. While both insist that there is only one China (Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China), and each claim legitimacy, both parties agree that a system of two governments is the best course of action. The Taiwanese government operates independently of Beijing, and likewise, Beijing tends stay out of Taiwan’s domestic affairs. In recent years, however, China and Taiwan have been on a path of mutual cooperation and growth in the form of cultural exchange programs and closer economic ties. Unfortunately, this period of tranquility may soon be shattered.
With the 2012 Taiwanese presidential elections just around the corner, the issue of cross-strait relations is once again at the forefront of the political fray. President Ma-Ying Jeou of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party has a strong record of promoting closer ties with Beijing. Ma, a Harvard educated lawyer, opened up high level dialogue for the first time between the two governments. He also pushed for several free trade agreements that have led to the elimination of more than 90 percent of the tariffs put on Taiwanese products. Recently, he signed legislation creating the first direct flight and open immigration policy between Taipei and Beijing.
Ma’s challenger is Tsai-Ing Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP). The DDP champions Taiwanese independence and is often critical of Ma’s eagerness to work closely with Beijing. On several occasions, Wen has criticized Ma for willingly tarnishing Taiwanese sovereignty and dignity in his dialogue with Beijing. Though most Taiwanese support continued amity with China, a growing number of people are starting to turn their support away from Ma and towards Wen.
Though Ma still enjoys a significant lead in the polls, his reelection is far from secured. In recent months Ma has become increasingly vulnerable. His mishandling of the Morakot typhoon disaster coupled with rising unemployment and economic stagnation has disappointed made many of his supporters. Ma, who won the 2008 presidential elections with 60 percent of the vote, saw his approval ratings drop to 16 percent in July of last year. Today it remains at a dismal 45 percent.
However, despite low approval ratings, many still believe that Ma’s reelection is imperative for the continuation of cross-strait dialogue. Agreeing with this analysis is Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies. Pei explained that Ma has taken a “pragmatic approach to seeking stability and that Ma’s efforts have led to improved commercial ties resulting in mutually beneficial free trade agreements.” Yet despite all of Ma’s accomplishments, Pei believes that this election places Taiwan at a delicate point. “The election of Tsai Ing Wen can bring about an abrupt change in the cross strait relationship,” Pei said. “We can probably expect a significant emphasis from the DDP on independence, thereby cooling relations across the strait.”
Pei also thinks that Wen’s platform concerning cross-strait relations is “very vague.” Regarding Wen’s recent proposal for a national referendum supporting closer ties with Beijing, Pei shook his head in disapproval. “Such a proposal,” he explained, “sets a dangerous precedent that Beijing will not appreciate. This proposal concerns closer ties. What if the next one she proposes concerns independence?” Pei went on to criticize Wen’s ambiguity. “What does she mean by closer ties? Is it binding? Does it have the effect of law?”
Pei’s analysis of the situation highlights an important distinction between the KMT and DDP. Members of the KMT see China as a potentially ally, at least, in the economic sense. Members of the DDP, however, see China as the opposition and the root cause of their problems. They believe deeply that a true Taiwanese must not consider himself as Chinese in any sense.
Fortunately, such a vitriolic sentiment is absent from the Claremont scene. Bonnie Yan CMC ‘15, an international student from Shanghai explained, “Among the youth, there is no animosity. Though several of my Taiwanese friends are proud of their cultural identity, they have remained respectful of mine.” When asked about her thoughts on the upcoming Taiwanese elections, Yan noted that the political undertones of the election are trivial and divisive. “The real issue that should be discussed,” she said, “is how we can continue to foster mutually beneficial economic ties. People are interested in job creation, higher wages, and better standards of living. Everything else is irrelevant.”