Taiwan votes for the status quo

SCMP March 22

The only thing both surprising and unsettling about the Taiwan election was the extreme closeness of the result. A tight contest was always on the cards, but for any election to be decided by fewer than 30,000 votes out of 13 million is unusual. It is also unsettling if Lien Chan persists in deeming the election unfair. It is one thing for the Kuomintang to ask for ballot boxes to be sealed for a possible recount, quite another to cast doubt on the process, and imply that Friday's shootings were a put-up job by the Democratic Progressive Party camp. The KMT ruled Taiwan for so long that it has always had difficulty accepting it does not have a divine right to govern.

President Chen Shui-bian has been given a second term despite an undistinguished first one in office because he had an identity and an agenda that the opposition double act of Mr Lien and James Soong Chu-yu lacked. Mr Chen has been given a mandate for continuity rather than change.

Meanwhile his critics in Beijing, Washington and other capitals where self-determination for Taiwanese is anathema, can take comfort from the failure of the referendum. The electorate showed itself capable of making a distinction between Mr Chen as president and this ploy.

In retrospect, it is hard to say whether the referendum issue won or lost votes for Mr Chen. On one level, it brought the issue of Taiwanese identity to the fore and gave a focus to Mr Chen's campaign. On the other, the hostile response of the US caused some to worry that he was pushing too hard. Standing up to Beijing's invective is popular enough among Taiwanese, but losing friends in Washington has no electoral upside.

The KMT, in fact, has itself mainly to blame for losing two successive elections. Mr Chen would never have won in 2000 but for the split between Mr Lien and Mr Soong. Mr Lien remains as wooden as ever and Mr Soong's reputation has been sullied by the money politics of the past.

In the end, Mr Chen, the more effective politician, managed to hold on to just enough of the middle ground. That middle ground wants the status quo of de facto independence and gradual opening to the mainland, provided Taiwanese identity is recognised.

It is Beijing's principal problem that it fails to recognise quite why Taiwan feels as it does. If the comrades would spend more time studying the island's history and less on issuing edicts, they might find ways of bridging the cross-strait identity gap. It is a reality now that no leader of a democratic Taiwan can afford to offer much ground to Beijing. In this election, the KMT could make much of its opposition to the referendum and present itself as the party most likely to keep cross-strait relations on an even keel. But it is clear that the differences between the KMT and DPP when it comes to the specifics of what is negotiable are quite small.

The middle ground consensus does not want disruption of trade or economic damage from cross-strait spats. At the same time, it is not prepared to sacrifice its sense of identity and pride in democratic institutions on the altar of business interests. That is relevant to Hong Kong, where business interests fear democracy precisely because it gives expression to the interests of the majority.

The relatively weak (by its own high standards) performance of the Taiwan economy over the past four years had suggested to many that the electors would prefer closer mainland ties as an economic stimulus. That now appears not to be the case. One reason is the sharp rebound of the past nine months. But there are deeper reasons too.

There is a legitimate debate in Taiwan on the benefits of ever-closer links with the mainland. It was clear enough in the past that Taiwan benefited from the shift of low-tech industries to the mainland, and this process will continue. At the same time, the attempts to lure Taiwan hi-tech business, and the use of state subsidies to develop industries competing directly with Taiwan, are a threat.

Direct trade and transport, and banking links would spur some Taiwan industries, particularly in the service and financial sectors. Indeed, opening up services generally is needed if Taiwan excellence in manufacturing technology is not to be offset by an inefficient services sector. But Taiwan can have services development without formal cross-strait links.

Nor does the buildup of the mainland's military capability aimed at Taiwan have quite the impact on Taiwanese thinking that outsiders assume. The US commitment to Taiwan may waver if the cost of global police duties limits engagement in East Asia. But the more the mainland builds its military threat to Taiwan, the more concerned neighbours, especially Japan, become. They care nothing about Taiwanese identity, but they do care about Beijing's control of the Luzon and Taiwan straits and its ability to enforce its claims to most of the South China Sea.

Those are long-range issues. The immediate concerns for Beijing are how to approach another four years of Mr Chen. The new mainland leadership has plenty of economic and social problems at home. It seems likely to follow its common-sense instincts, put Taiwan into the "too hard" basket, assuming the dignified posture that the matter will be resolved by history: reunification is inevitable, but the timing is immaterial.





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