Vote for stability

Published : Apr 25, 2008 00:00 IST

Supporters of Ma Ying-jeou celebrate his victory in Taipei on March 22.-MAURICE TSAI/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Supporters of Ma Ying-jeou celebrate his victory in Taipei on March 22.-MAURICE TSAI/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Taiwan elects a new President, Ma Ying-jeou, in a vote widely seen as a rejection of the divisive policies of the Chen Shui-bian regime.

BY the objective standards of international politics, the election outcomes in the non-sovereign territory of Taiwan, which rightfully belongs to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) under the internationally recognised One China principle, should not merit much attention. However, the March 22 exercise of franchise in Taiwan acquires importance for a singular reason that has been either overlooked or insufficiently recognised.

This relates to the overwhelming rejection of two overlapping propositions, which, if not vetoed in the referendum on that day as the case indeed was, would have allowed Taiwan to seek re-entry into the United Nations. Expelled from the world body in 1971, the territory will now continue to remain a non-state actor, albeit in a strict sense of the term under international law and not in the commonly understood sense under the ongoing United States-led global war on terror.

For the long-term politics of the Asia-Pacific region, where Taiwan is situated, this aspect is of greater importance than the convincing victory of Ma Ying-jeou of Kuomintang (KMT) as Taiwans next President in the March 22 elections, which included the parallel referendum. For nearly eight years now, the pro-independence President, Chen Shui-bian, has governed the area in a manner widely seen as divisive and has often resorted to political brinkmanship in his engagement with the PRC.

Even in this larger perspective, care is needed to keep in focus the basic reality that the U.N. is not waiting with open arms to re-admit Taiwan as a state player under whatever name. In a sense, therefore, the latest referendum itself was ab initio an exercise in futility.

Apart from the practical dynamics of the One China principle, the PRCs well-established presence in the U.N. Security Council, as a veto-empowered permanent member, is a formidable factor against any bid by Taiwan to seek re-entry into the General Assembly. By a quirk of history, a small Taiwan, under the name of Republic of China, remained a permanent member of the Security Council until 1971.

At the time of Taiwans expulsion from all forums of the world body in that year, the larger international community was finally able to have its positive say on the China question, as it was known then. Complex geopolitical crosscurrents, involving the U.S. and the PRC, and also the primary incongruity of Taiwans status as a veto-empowered permanent member until October 1971, accounted for the denouement in that year. Taiwans subsequent efforts to re-enter the U.N. were rebuffed.

Now, in the first half of 2008, Taiwan continues to be bereft of any means to try and change the U.N. verdict of 1971. More importantly, the new geopolitical reality in the Asia-Pacific region is that the residents of Taiwan themselves have clearly expressed their desire to come to terms with their current status as the people of a non-sovereign territory. The main issue in the March 22 referendum did not impinge on any particular formula about their long-term political future. The PRC, which governs Hong Kong under the principle of one country, two systems under well-defined terms, has offered Taiwan a similar political package of reunification.

The finer details of the latest referendum and the presidential poll in Taiwan should, therefore, be interpreted as local realities in this larger regional and global context. At stake in the referendum were two inter-related propositions. The people were asked to say yes or no to the idea of seeking admission to the U.N. under the new name of Taiwan, while the other proposition was that re-entry into the world body be sought under the same name as before, namely the so-called Republic of China. Voters were encouraged to express themselves on both these propositions in two separate strands of the referendum.

Of over 17.31 million eligible voters, those who cared to answer the query regarding Taiwan as the name numbered just over 6.2 million, or 35.82 per cent. The comparable figure of participation in respect of the other poser was just over 6.1 million, or 35.74 per cent. The poor turnout resulted in a decisive veto in both cases. While the actual percentages of yes, in regard to those who cared to participate in the referendum, were high, the political message from the low turnout a categorical no could not have been more emphatic. The reason is not far to seek.

Those who made it a point to vote in the parallel presidential poll numbered over 13.10 million. This reflected the true political mood of wanting a new leader but not a controversial bid for readmission to the U.N. in the face of opposition from the PRC and an overwhelming majority of the members of the global forum.

With the anti-PRC Chen being ineligible to contest this time for another term as President, the candidate of his independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was Chang-ting Hsieh, better known as Frank Hsieh, who bagged 41.55 per cent of the ballot cast. Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, which traces its political genesis to a period before the triumphal emergence of the PRC in 1949, won this presidential poll by securing over 7.60 million votes, or 58.45 per cent of the ballot cast.

For Ma, seen across the territory as a refreshing alternative to Chen, the victory over Hsieh, who was unable to break free of the incumbents shadow in spite of not being his political alter-ego, could not have been sweeter. At one level, the KMT will regain power in May, when Ma succeeds the retiring Chen. At another and more important level, the change at the helm will be much more than a mere succession.

For Beijing, the inevitable exit of Chen from Taiwans centre stage is matched by the emergence of Ma who, in a sense, is a pan-China personality. Not born in Taiwan, Ma has links to Hong Kong, Chinas central crucible for the principle of one country, two systems under specific terms and a timeline. He has so far shown a much-nuanced appreciation of the U.S. line against any unilateral moves by Taipei to change its status quo in the face of Beijings resolute political will to uphold the One China policy and oppose Taiwan independence under any name and in any form. Chen has, in contrast, remained immune to the changing dynamics of global politics, in which China has emerged as a central player notwithstanding its differences with the U.S. on a few key issues.

Regional diplomats and analysts, therefore, tend to believe that Beijing might, at the least, view Mas rise to power in Taipei as opening up the possibility of not having to deal with the the worst case scenario of an excessively confrontationist Taiwan.

The bottom line in regard to Taiwan, equally acceptable to Beijing and the wider international community as of now, is that the territory can be viewed as a functional economy and not a sovereign state. Significantly, Taiwan is in the forum of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the name and style of Taipei, China.

What, then, is Mas political agenda in these delicate circumstances? With handsome looks and a winning smile as his political trademark during the presidential campaign, he rode out several mini-storms over allegations of corrupt practices in the past and questions about his lineage and related credentials to lead the territory. He proved himself particularly popular among women voters and managed to communicate with the young male electorate, too.

Ma and the people of Taiwan generally pride themselves over their democratic system that replaced their own old authoritarian order. It is a political irony, with no damage done to him, that the old authoritarian governance was the legacy of the KMT itself.

Having already distanced himself from this aspect of the past, Ma chose the campaign trail to shift the focus to issues concerning Taiwans future. In particular, he proposed to work for the evolution of a common market that would link the territory to China in distinctive but undefined ways.

Another key proposition was that he would strive for a peace treaty with Beijing. With Taiwan belonging to the PRC under the widely recognised One China principle, the notion of a peace treaty is not appropriate to the context.

However, Ma has so far chosen to leave his bottom line political preferences, insofar as China is concerned, to the nebulous realm of speculation. In a sense, his agenda reflects the dilemmas of his territory, if only because no Taiwan leader has so far been able to come to terms with its expulsion from the U.N. as a one-time state actor under the protective wings of the U.S. As John W. Garver, who made an extensive study of Taiwans relevance to the early years of the American Cold War strategy in Asia, a major responsibility for the outcome of the 1971 U.N. debate must be laid at the doorstep of Taipei itself.

Addressing the international media in Taipei on March 23, Ma said his immediate initiatives in regard to Beijing would be based on ways to maximise opportunities and minimise security risks for his territory. A peace treaty will not take priority over the economic normalisation [in Taiwans interactions with the PRC]. Presently, we will like to start [only] preliminary contacts [with Beijing] on how a peace treaty should be signed. Taiwan already boasts a booming economic nexus with China.

The more urgent problems he would now seek to address in regard to China were the establishment of two-way direct flights and the encouragement of tourism as also financial services for mutual benefit.

While Taiwans politics is invariably seen by external powers under the sole prism of Taipeis present and potential ties with China as the global player, purely local issues such as inflation and allegations of corruption, especially those relating to the Chen administration, came to the fore in a big way during the recent poll campaign.

So, in his victory speech, Ma said: It is a vote for change, for reform; [a] vote for harmony to march forward. People will like to have clean government. They dont want corruption; they want prosperity, they do not want recession. They want stability. The people of Taiwan want harmony; they do not like to see divisions; they do not want to see war.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment