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Full Steam Ahead on China-Taiwan Reconciliation?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

May you live in interesting times. This reportedly ancient Chinese curse certainly applies to members of President Obama's foreign policy team. Compelled to juggle the issues associated with the conduct of two wars and a seemingly endless list of regional crises, the policy makers at State, the National Security Council, and Department of Defense have little time to ponder events that take place on the sidelines. In this case, I am referring to the Taiwan county magistrates and city mayors election that took place on 5 December 2009. This seemingly mundane event--the ruling party retained a majority of the posts up for bid--may well portend a rapid escalation in Taipei's efforts to reconcile with Beijing.

This seemingly heady conclusion is not as far fetched as one might first believe. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has been engaged in a campaign to mend cross-strait relations for the last 18 months. Ma's insistence on reviving the "1992 Consensus" and dismissal of his predecessor's "two states" rhetoric has--in fact--served to revive substantive talks between Beijing and Taipei. Furthermore, these negotiations have delivered tangible results. Taiwan and China now have direct air and sea links. The two sides have relaxed travel restrictions. And the stage as been set for an Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement that will significantly ease cross-strait trade and investment.

As one might expect, all of these developments have made pro-independence forces on Taiwan very nervous...and increasingly vocal about Ma's perceived surrender of Taipei's self-declared sovereignty. Suffice it to say Ma's critics are looking for any opportunity to derail his agenda and Western press sources appear to be abetting their efforts. A case in point, headlines for reports on the 5 December elections. Here's how the New York Times titled its story, "Anti - China Opposition Gains Ground In Taiwan Local Election." The BBC declared, "Taiwan Elections Hint at Unease over Closer China Ties." The Financial Times was little better, "Taiwan Poll Setback will Force Rethink on China."

But here's what really happened. Despite suffering the worst recession in 50 years and a record unemployment rate, the Taiwan electorate handed Ma's party a victory in 12 of 17 counties and cities. The ruling Kuomintang also earned overwhelming victories in elections for county and city councilors and township chiefs. Admittedly, the percentage of voters casting ballots for the Kuomintang candidates declined from the 50.95% witnessed in 2005 to 47.97%--but that drop was inevitable given the state of Taiwan's economy and lingering discontent with the manner in which Ma's government responded to Typhoon Morakot, a storm best likened to Katrina in terms of cost and political bungling.

Now, I used to make a living doing electoral analysis--the grim equivalent of being a pollster--and these results demand more than a cursory headline. First, in local elections across the planet voters turn out to pass judgment on the officials who have the greatest impact on their lives. A mayor who fails to fix streets, ensure garbage collection, or keep the police in line is going to be looking for work following the next election. The folks voting for city councilmen and township chiefs are not seeking to alter national foreign policy, they are trying guarantee public services continue to function and the dog catcher does his job. Second, it is safe to say that voting one's pocket book is a universal attribute. I guarantee you that every Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives is painfully aware of this phenomenon. What makes Western reporters think the same thing is not true in Taiwan? The global recession has wrecked havoc on Taiwan's economy and the electorate wants to make sure the boys in charge do something to address that problem.

So, Ma now knows he has a significant problem on his hands. Unless he does something to dramatically improve Taiwan's economy there is a high probability a second term as president is out of the question. Ma is a politician--he craves public adoration and power--that means he's not going to surrender without a fight. What's the best way to fix Taiwan's economy in short order...invite Chinese investment and stimulate cross-strait trade. The surest means of accomplishing this objective? Sign the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement and put it into effect before China's free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations kicks into high gear.

Think I'm kidding? Here is what Ma had to say after the 5 December elections. "We should be grateful since the voters still gave the [Kuomintang] the chance to continue its rule of the 12 counties or cities up for grabs even in the face of the economic downturn and high unemployment." Ma went on to promise the Kuomintang would now "honestly face the message of warning sent by the elections and seek to re-energize the economy so as to ensure a better tomorrow for the people."

And don't think Ma forgot to court goodwill with China in advance of this election "warning." In September 2009, Taipei quietly announced it was essentially abandoning a 16-year old effort to reenter the United Nations. In mid-October press sources reported China and Taiwan were preparing to open tourism offices in their respective capitals, and in late October we learned Taipei was relaxing its regulations on Chinese media operations. This outreach campaign continued in November. On 23 November, Taipei said it would no longer claim the territorial waters surrounding Kinmen and Matsu--Taiwan's frontline bastion in the war on Chinese communism. I'm thinking all this has to have Beijing feeling downright comfortable about dealing with Ma.

My bottom line, Ma has a new reason for pursuing an even closer relationship with Beijing...and likely sees little need to consult with Washington on his next steps. Given all of his efforts to date, Ma appears inclined to set Taipei on a voyage from which there is no return. Ma's pledge of "no unification" during his administration is merely a political ploy that serves to keep the Kuomintang...and Ma...in power. The day after he leaves office all bets are off. As Ma told a reporter in January 2009, this "no unification" policy does not exclude eventual reunification. But, he went on to note, such a momentous development would not occur before 2016--the year Ma would complete his second term. Chiang Kai-shek has to be spinning in his grave...I just hope someone in Washington is paying attention to the dead man's commotion.

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