Ma's re-election rings loudest on the mainland

2012-01-19Asia Times

BEIJING - The re-election of President Ma Ying-jeou is important for Taiwan, the island de facto independent but formally part of one China, but the event is possibly even more important for China and its future.

To Beijing, Ma's victory is reason to celebrate: it culminates many years of quiet diplomacy and reaching out to the Kuomintang (KMT), the ruling nationalist ruling party to which Ma belongs, that started with KMT chairman Lian Chan's visit to Xi'an in 2005.

Ma's victory almost definitely stops what Beijing most feared - the drift toward formal independence that began with Taiwan's president Lee Teng-hui in the late 1990s after talks with Beijing failed.

At the end of Ma's present mandate, ties with mainland China will have become stronger and more solid. Although it is possible that the two sides may not move too close together, it would by then be very difficult for Taiwan to again try to distance itself - economically, but also culturally - from Beijing. This is currently Beijing's main goal concerning Taiwan.

China does not dream of a fast reunification with the island as it would create immense problems. What would the role of the KMT be in China? Should there be total freedom of the press in China, like in Taiwan? Should there be free elections? Or should free elections be abolished in Taiwan?

How can two political systems be sustained in one country? Would Taiwan's political leaders attend top Communist Party meetings in Beijing? Would they be briefed about top security information? And if not, what kind of role would Taiwan's leaders have in a reunified China? Et cetera. But Beijing does not wish for Taiwan to declare formal independence, as it could fuel "splittist" movements in parts of China like Tibet or Xinjiang with large non-Han populations, the majority ethnicity in China and in Taiwan.

If Han-majority regions like Taiwan can become independent, it seems more likely that so could a region with a non-Han majority. In a way, Ma's victory provided China with a favorable political environment to cope with its prickly security issues in restive regions. This is a very important and concrete domestic result for Beijing. On the other hand, there are many broader critical lessons that can be drawn from the Beijing's new Taiwan policy.

One immediately evident point is that correct handling of "foreign policy" (in this case, Taiwan) creates good political preconditions to handle domestic issues (Tibet or Xinjiang in this case), or vice versa, the mishandling of foreign affairs can also stir up problems at home.

Another essential lesson is about methods. After discussions between Beijing and Lee Teng-hui in Taipei broke down in the 1990s, Beijing tried for years to pressure and bully Taipei into submission. The result was to scare Taiwan into drifting away from its Chinese identity.

Things began to improve after Beijing stopped its threats and became even better when it made overtures to the island and simply ignored all provocations coming from Taipei. In fact, the bombastic threats in Beijing were mostly naive or self-serving, as a group of nationalist conservatives in Beijing blackmailed the leadership, arguing that if you are weak with Taiwan, you have given up on national unification and don't deserve to rule.

Actually, the result of the tough talk was just the opposite, creating distance with Taiwan, whereas the result of "weak" methods has resolved the Taiwan issue.

These results were long-term, but the leadership had to withstand tough criticisms in the meantime. Conservatives accused the leaders of surrendering to the island. Now the current success in Taiwan is a lesson that can be applied all around in foreign policy.

Beijing's bullying or lack of attention in recent years - its arrogance and tough talk - has created growing concern around the world and has solved none of its geopolitical problems while worsening a few. However, Taiwan proves that a different approach can bring many positive results in the long term, once the leadership weathers some short-term backlash.

In other words, the theories of China's peaceful evolution and of creating a community of interests have been vindicated and could be applied more forcefully worldwide. The hawks on China's foreign policy then should have less room for maneuver. Things may not be that straightforward, as domestic debate in China hinges on many elements, but Ma's success can't be easily dismissed.

One more element in this picture is the role of the United States. Taiwan is the most sensitive issue in China's foreign policy and beyond its foreign policy. On this, the US has been coherent and consistent in opposing Beijing's bullying methods while aiding and supporting Beijing's softer tactics.

Taiwan's current result would have been impossible without the US firm opposition to pro-independence former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian's provocations and America's staunch backing of the KMT policy toward China. This may be a rock-solid base for future bilateral ties as on Sunday the Chinese media reported that US newspapers wrote "Ma Ying-jeou re-election fits [fuhe] with American and Chinese interests." [1]

Then Taiwan could be the basis both for a refocusing of ties between the US and China - besides the recent controversy over the US new military focus on Asia - and a model for ties between China and all other neighboring countries.

This new US military presence in Asia could be conceived as friendly and useful to China. [2] How this can and will happen is an open issue, but certainly now there is a great opening.

The KMT is the US oldest political partner in Asia. Ties between the US and the KMT are about 80 years old, and went on for all this time with much friction but without a break. Then, for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), improving ties with the KMT will not automatically translate into better ties with the US, but these improvements with Taiwan may have great impact in Washington if cleverly played.

The domestic impact is also relevant. Although political reunification is not for tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow, the political questions of the reunification are on the agenda and de facto pressing Beijing's own political reforms schedule. In the long term, it is very hard to think that political reunification with Taiwan can be achieved by forfeiting free elections on the island.

It is far more likely that unified China will have free elections, as many of China's 500 million Internet users eagerly followed the vote in Taiwan. The trend in China is not for less but for greater freedom.

The road to all this in Beijing can be bumpy and at times uncertain. The old hawks will not totally vanish and new hawks on new policies will pop up, but this could become part of a freer political atmosphere in Beijing. In any case, the current leadership has now gained greater clout, which should play out in the next party congress.

1. See for instance Tan Liya's Meimei: Ma Yingjiu lianren fuhe dalu ji meiguo liyi ( in Huanqiu shibao. January 15, 2012.
2. See for instance my The blessing of China's threat ( in La Stampa. June 4, 2007.  (2012-01-19 Asia Times)


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