Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Taiwan in Dire Straits?

On March 22nd Taiwan is braced for a Presidential election whose outcome could have significant repercussions for cross-strait relations and international security.

After eight years in opposition, the pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT) is mounting a strong challenge to President Chen Shui-Bian's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese authorities are quietly confident that KMT candidate Ma Ying-Jeou can carry the day.

Early signs show that the Blue Alliance, led by the Kuomintang, will replicate its landslide victory in January's legislative elections where it won 86 of 113 seats halving the DPP's representation in the Legislative Yuan and leaving it with less than a quarter of the seats.

However, a Kuomintang victory would not necessarily mean the Taiwanese people's desire for independence has in any way diminished.

According to recent data provided by the Election Study Center more than 62% of Taiwanese voters support independence, while many others remain in favour of retaining the status quo instead of closer political ties with China.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the fact the election is being fought predominantly on economic rather than cross-strait issues, with the KMT campaigning on an "open door economic policy" towards Beijing to win voters round, particularly the one million who currently reside on the mainland.

By contrast, the ruling DPP has made itself increasingly unpopular with investors due to Chen Shui-Bian's restrictive policies on trade with China, designed to protect Taiwanese industry, which have been roundly criticised for contributing to the recent recession.

Nevertheless, the independence issue is still live and has been stoked by threats of military retribution if a planned referendum on Taiwan's application to join the UN under its own name goes ahead on the same day as the Presidential election.

China regards the decision to hold a referendum on U.N. membership as a move toward formal independence and has said that the vote "could threaten peace in the Asia-Pacific region".

Not coincidentally, the Beijing authorities chose this month to unveil plans to increase military spending by an unprecedented 18% this year, in contravention of international norms, to a total of 417.8bn yuan or 59 billion dollars.

Despite claims that "China's limited military capability is solely for the purpose of safeguarding independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity" the government has already confirmed Taiwan will pay a 'dear price' for supporting independence, since it considers the island an integral part of its territory.

The outcome of the election could thus depend markedly on how the Taiwanese people respond to China's strong arm tactics.

Defiance would work in favour of the DPP candidate Frank Hsieh and could mean that the Kuomintang's dominance in the legislative elections is not replicated in the Presidential poll.

In contrast to the KMT line which advises retaining the name 'Republic of China' for an eventual UN seat, he continues to advocate Taiwan's full and unambiguous inclusion in the organisation as well as a robust Human Rights policy that goes against the grain of closer ties with China.

However, given the international community's opposition to the referendum which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has branded as 'provocative', citizens may think twice before invoking the wrath of their powerful neighbour, particularly since Japan has also expressed strong reservations.

In the end, pragmatism, and Ma Ying-Jeou's clear support in the Taiwanese media could hold the day. However, Taipei's ambitions to play a greater role in global governance should not stop there.
One of the major problems with the UN's current set-up is, as is the case with the World Health Organisation, it provides no forum for non-state actors, or states which are not recognised by the whole international community.
Such a forum is vital for ensuring peace and stability in volatile regions and encouraging diplomatic solutions for conflicts that threaten our collective security.

Establishing criteria for Taiwan to participate in the essential work of the UN without creating a political crisis with the People's Republic is essential to ending Taiwan's international isolation and allowing it to work in partnership with other nations on matters of mutual concern.

This should be the international community's current priority with regards Taiwan, regardless of the outcome of the referendum and Presidential election on March 22nd.

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