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    Greater China
     Dec 3, 2011



Dead heat election raises Taiwan stakes
By Sreeram Chaulia

HSINCHU, Taiwan - With barely a month-and-half left before Taiwan's crucial presidential election, the race is neck and neck between incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou and the leading opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen.

Televised presidential debates that begin this weekend will likely add to the uncertainty. The only guarantee in this exciting drama is that it is not over until the last voter casts his or her ballot on January 14, 2012.

A regional divide is clear across Taiwan. Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds a clear edge in the southern part of the country, which is less urbanized and more agrarian in its economic base. A widely held perception is that farmers have not benefited as much from President Ma's eventful four-year term as the industrial belt up north, where the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party can count on several strongholds. The central region could in the end be decisive, as it is believed by observers to be a swing area. It is currently seeing a flurry of rallies by the KMT and the DPP.

This presidential election was made more interesting by last week's wildcard entry of veteran Taiwanese politician James Soong, who created the People First Party (PFP) in 2000 after being expelled from the KMT. Opinion polls put Soong support at around 10% and he has emerged as a major spoiler for president Ma's re-election chances.

His charismatic oratorical skills may sway some undecided voters in the television dustups, further queering the pitch for Ma. While there is speculation he may eventually pull out of the race, it may leave too little time for the phlegmatic Ma to cover lost ground.

Given enormous foreign policy shifts enacted by Ma in his first term as president, this election is also being watched warily by major powers in the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese media are full of news reports about how mainland China is meddling yet again in a Taiwanese election after being convinced that "losing" Ma would be detrimental to Chinese interests. As a competitor for regional influence with China, Japan views the Taiwanese election as a litmus test of how much deeper Beijing's reach will grow across the Taiwan Straits, with a friendly regime such as Ma's in the saddle for another four years.

Ma's pronouncements about signing a "peace accord" with Beijing if he is re-elected have also triggered unease in a region where China's march to hegemony is a frightful prospect. This author met some advisers to the DPP presidential campaign who, contrary to the general public opinion, were confident that Tsai would win hands down because "80% of Taiwanese people are afraid of losing their distinct identity and independence to China and they know that Ma is Beijing's Trojan Horse".

Observers say China is using subtle means to ensure Ma's victory, contrary to previous elections where bigwigs of the Chinese Communist Party openly issued threats if the Taiwanese candidate they preferred was not elected. Two levers that the mainland has deployed thus far are agricultural imports and tourists. Given that Ma's weakness lies in the southern parts of Taiwan where agriculture predominates, China has stepped up buying produce on a massive scale to alleviate grievances of the countryside and make them feel good about Ma. The threat inherent in this strategic import policy is that if Tsai wins, then Taiwanese farmers cannot expect to enjoy the benefits of access to China's humungous market.

With hordes of mainland Chinese tourists have poured into Taiwan since travel liberalization policies enacted by the Ma regime, Beijing has found another lever with which to poke and reconfigure Taiwan's internal politics. Chinese tourism in Taiwan follows strict itineraries set by Beijing and commentators have noted that as the election nears, the tourists are being channeled more into KMT bastions so as to showcase the concrete international economic benefits of siding with Ma.

City mayors have realized the wealth that tourist spending brings and have pleaded for swarms of mainlanders. For the DPP's voting base, the strategic manipulation of Chinese tourist movements is an omen of economic stagnation to come if they stick to Tsai's camp.

China is also said to be encouraging the one million-strong Taiwanese business and investor community resident on the mainland to use their money and ballots to return Ma. While not all Taiwanese investors in China are KMT financiers or advocates, many do fear the return of the DPP to power could slow, if not destroy, the cross-Straits economic interactions which have grown at a galloping rate under Ma.

Taiwan's business elite are still divided on the presidential election, basing their attitudes on narrow sectoral calculations of which industry is receiving favorable treatment from the Ma administration and which one has suffered from step fatherly policies. With China accounting for 30% of Taiwan's total trade and also for an estimated US$150 billion of private Taiwanese foreign investment, the former does have the material means to make a difference in a dead heat election.

The United States has thus far maintained a cautious position on the presidential struggle, reflecting some of the same anxieties of the Taiwanese people and other powers in East Asia. Washington wishes not to get entangled in a serious security flare up in the Taiwan Straits, but is at the same time worried about Ma's chumminess with Chinese leaders that might disturb the American strategic architecture for the region.

The re-emphasized vigor with which Washington has engaged with states in the Asia Pacific that challenge Chinese hegemony has a direct impact on Taiwan's own ability to remain an independent nation. Yet, Ma's government has not taken any stand on the rising tensions among Vietnam, the Philippines and China, even though these sovereignty disputes are playing out with American involvement right in Taiwan's vicinity.

One scholar this author spoke to recalled that Ma's academic research at Harvard University was on territorial tussles in East Asia, and that his position at that time was that the Senkaku islands controlled by Japan and claimed by mainland China actually belonged to Taiwan. Today, however, he keeps mum on the provocations of the People's Liberation Army Navy and is happy to minimally reiterate Taiwanese control of Taiping, which is the largest of the hotly disputed Spratly Islands.

Should the DPP's Tsai come to power, it is not very obvious that she will steer cross-Straits relations back to the confrontational era of past DPP regimes. The institutional effect of Ma's embrace of China for the last four years has been so overwhelming that a new dispensation in Taipei cannot simply roll back all the economic and cultural exchanges.

Tsai herself argues that she would establish "normal relations" with China rather than the "special ties" that Ma had championed. The DPP argues for balanced diversification of Taiwan's economic relations with other Asian powers so as to avoid the trap of political integration via goods and services with mainland China. But KMT partisans have tried to portray Tsai's advisers and political aides as rabid anti-China forces who will ruin the economic gains of trading and investing with the mainland if they are in charge.

Come January 14, the world will see whether Ma's much-vaunted "primacy of the economy over politics" proves convincing enough for Taiwanese citizens. Crude representations of Ma as a stooge of the Chinese or of Tsai as a hardliner who will steer Taiwan back towards tensions with China are flying around in the campaigning rhetoric for the elections, but the accumulated foreign policy changes of the last four years are such that they have altered the ground realities and made engagement with China irreversible.

If it were just a question of degrees of difference rather than polarization between the two main parties on the China question, then the world may breathe easier as the stakes of the elections would then not be as critical. But given the sharp policy turnarounds engineered by Ma when he was elected in 2008, and the pressure from the grassroots faced by Tsai to re-assert Taiwanese sovereignty against a looming China, no foreign power is taking chances by just letting the domestic politics of Taiwan play out and throw up a winner.

Just as the 2012 American presidential elections and Chinese Communist Party successions are determiners of world order today, Taiwan's presidential contest has become a pivotal one with ramifications for the overall nature of Asia-Pacific international relations. Taiwan's voters would wish that democracy as a process is the only winner of this election, but Beijing, Washington and Tokyo would be assessing who among the foreign players actually "won" on January 14.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. He is the first B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic affairs think tank, the Takshashila Institution, and the author of the recent book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (IB Tauris, London)

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