International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Taiwan's chance to expand its vision
Monday, March 24, 2008

HONG KONG: There is one reason, perhaps only one, to welcome the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan - and it has nothing to do with cross-straits relations. It is that one party will now control both the executive and legislative branches, bringing to an end eight years of stasis created by the unwillingness of a legislature controlled by the Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang, to cooperate with President Chen Shui-bian.

Outsiders tend to look at Taiwan entirely in terms of its relations with mainland China. But Taiwan's politics are driven more by domestic issues, a tendency exacerbated by the executive-legislative divide. Some of Ma's support in the election last weekend came from swing voters fed up with petty politicking who want the stability of one-party government. Many are hoping that the quality of Taiwan's still-youthful democracy will be strengthened if the legislature elected three months ago proves less prone than its predecessors to corruption and sectional interests.

That is not to say that life will be easy for Ma, who is more popular with the public than with the hierarchy of the Nationalist Party and is sometimes seen as indecisive. But it does present him with the chance to form a government that can devise effective social and economic policies and push them through a legislature in which vested interests abound.

Economic issues were much-neglected by Chen, partly because of his obsession with questions of Taiwan's identity and partly because of the sheer difficulty in bringing about change in the face of the Kuomintang's strength in the bureaucracy as well as the legislature.

On cross-straits issues, the Kuomintang and its rivals had already come closer together, with the defeated Democratic Progressive Party candidate, Frank Hsieh, taking a much more pragmatic line than Chen, who delighted in provoking Beijing regardless of damage to Taiwan's relations with the United States and other countries.

President Hu Jintao of China still believes in approaching Taiwan with a carrot rather than a stick, at least until Beijing can command the Taiwan Straits.

Direct transport links, access for mainland tourists and fewer restrictions on two-way capital flows are now likely to go forward. Otherwise, Taipei's relations with the mainland are unlikely to change fundamentally. The mainland's economic appeal is strong, but it may have peaked, and recent events in Tibet have reinforced Taiwan's determination not to become another "autonomous" region.

Ma's mainland ancestry makes him suspect in the eyes of many islanders, and he will need to prove his own Taiwan identity by not being seen as soft on Beijing or covertly yearning for reunification.

The Democratic Progressive Party has been punished for the Chen government's corruption and incompetence, but the appeal of Taiwan identity is as strong as ever. Ma's policies will also be more aligned with Washington, whose alienation by the inept Chen contributed to his party's downfall.

Ma, who was born in Hong Kong and educated at Harvard, is more internationally minded than the Taiwan-centric Chen and should be able to see that Taiwan needs to do more than expand its dealings with China. Cross-strait links will help the island's economy but they are no panacea. It is just as important to remove the barriers that prevent Taiwan from becoming a regional trading and service hub. While the island's expertise in IT manufacturing is undoubted, other sectors of its economy have lagged, partly because of cross-straits tensions, but also due to petty restrictions aimed at protecting local commercial interests, bureaucratic power centers and long-redundant "security" considerations.

Demographics alone mean that Taiwan will never again be a fast-growing economy. But even without direct links to the mainland, it has the scope to position itself next to China and Japan as a gateway to Asia.

Chen's vision was narrow. Ma now has four years to prove that he can exploit a window of opportunity to use closer cross-strait links to underpin, not undermine, Taiwan's status.