In recent weeks the drama, accusations and controversy that followed the Taiwan Presidential election have certainly not been a glowing advertisement for universal suffrage. The chaotic episode has embodied everything that is wrong with the fledgling democracy – from the apparent assassination attempt to the obstinate resolve of the opposition to continue contesting the election they lost by less than 30,000 votes, or 0.2% of the 13 million cast.
The razor-thin victory was partially attributed to popular support for incumbent President Chen Shui-Bian's platform of formal independence for Taiwan. Chen himself certainly takes that view.
"The fundamental reason I won this presidential election . . . is because there is a rising Taiwan identity and it has been solidified," Chen said. "I think the Beijing authorities should take heed of this fact and accept the reality.?
"But then again, a referendum that was viewed by Beijing as the initial step towards an eventual plebiscite on formal independence failed by not reaching the required threshold of 50% of eligible voters, despite it being held at the same time as the presidential election. It seems that while Taiwanese voters are assertive enough to be publicly supportive of their de facto independence, they are wary of further provoking Beijing.
And so they should be. The PRC made it abundantly clear that they were backing opposition candidate Lien Chan to win what they referred to as the "so-called presidential election" and even threatened to step in if public order in Taiwan continued to deteriorate.
As well as those threats, China increased its diplomatic efforts to elicit concessions over Taiwan from the US at a time when the Bush administration is busy dealing with a worsening situation in Iraq and is hoping to apply additional pressure to North Korea. While US Vice-President Dick Cheney talked about support from China for the beleaguered war on terror and about reports that Pyongyang has already developed a small nuclear arsenal, his hosts in Beijing were focused squarely on Taiwan. In what some people saw as a concession to China, Therese Shaheen, managing director of the unofficial diplomatic mission the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), was forced to resign after reports that China had complained that she was too "pro-Taiwan."
The fact that China addresses its concerns over Taiwan to the US is a telling indication of one of the root causes of cross-Strait tension: Taiwan owes its current existence to the United States, whose generals once notoriously referred to the island as a "stationary aircraft carrier."
The influence the US has over the Taiwan situation combines with troop deployments in South Korea, Japan and increasingly in Central Asia to present an array of convenient tools for the Pentagon's often-stated goal of 'containing' China. On the great geopolitical military chessboard of the world, the US has China pretty much in check.
And as the military balance gradually swings across the Strait in favor of the Mainland – China is upgrading and modernizing its forces, while Taiwan has been dragging its feet on military purchases that have been in the works since 2001 – the role of the US in the conflict could become more crucial.
The United States and military issues aside, Taiwan's economy is becoming ever more integrated with, and dependant on, its massive neighbor's. China is already the top destination for Taiwan's exports and overseas investment and at least one million Taiwanese businesspeople live on the Mainland. As the roots of power and influence on the island become increasingly entangled with the Mainland, the question is whether this results in a reduced political imperative in Taiwan for greater formal independence. It is presumably for strategic reasons such as this that, in his first interviews since both the apparent attempt on his life and the election, President Chen talked of steering economic focus away from the Chinese Mainland. "Taiwan should position itself at the center of Asia, instead of a peripheral area, or completely dependent on China," he said.
He also said that progress on transportation links between Taiwan and the Mainland would be possible only if Beijing is willing to negotiate on his terms – a rather unlikely prospect. As for the PRC, a policy of wuwei, the Taoist principle of power through inaction, is what would appear to be most appropriate. The current "fourth generation" of leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are clearly the most pragmatic yet and it is quite possible that they will decide that carrots are at least as effective as the big sticks they have traditionally wielded.
Another important fact to remember is that Taiwan is still the largest single source of foreign investment for the Mainland, mostly through intermediate territories like Hong Kong and Caribbean island nations. The reality is that China needs to keep that investment flowing in order to hit those all-important GDP growth targets.
Despite the chaos caused by Taiwan's largest-ever demonstrations and the deep rift facing the country, major violence has been avoided. The crisis has basically been dealt with through the country's nascent democratic and legal institutions without a reversion to the island's military authoritarian roots, and that has encouraged positive sentiment from the global business community.
On the Monday following the peaceful conclusion of the large demonstrations organized by the KMT opposition, markets rebounded by 5% in one day following a week that had seen prices slump overall by 10%. In the week that followed, the markets rose across the board to eventually end up higher than they were prior to the election.
In the midst of the political fireworks, the flow of Taiwanese investment in to the Mainland continues unabated, as does investment from all other parts of the world. And business as usual for cross-Strait economic ties is likely in the long run to be a more important determining factor on the future than anything else.
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