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
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