How the Election May Affect Taiwan-U.S. Relations

At the moment, the presidential election in Taiwan features a very competitive race between incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT and Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, with James Soong running a very distant third. The outcome of this election has the potential to affect U.S-Taiwan relations. If and how it will do so depend upon three distinct factors:  1) the policies of the winning candidate; 2) U.S. views about Taiwan; and 3) China’s reaction in cross-Strait relations which might create tensions between Washington and Taipei.

The United States has a long-standing policy of supporting peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait in what might be called the “Establishment” position, although two contending perspectives have been emerged. One believes that the U.S. should abandon its strong support of Taiwan because it creates an impediment to improving relations with China; and the other wants Taiwan to be more aggressive in confronting the PRC. In general, the supporters of the Establishment view favor Ma, while the advocates of the other two favor Tsai, obviously for very different reasons.

Over the course of the campaign, we can see a cycle of polarization on national identity and cross-Strait relations. The two major candidates started out with seemingly reasonable and moderate positions on cross-Strait relations, although their critics would dispute this conclusion. Ma’s “Three Nos” (No Unification, No Independence, and No War) represents the current status quo which seems acceptable to most parties; and Tsai’s proposal for developing a “Taiwan Consensus” for dealing with China is certainly an important policy goal.

By October and November, though, greater polarization erupted. For example, Ma’s proposal for concluding a “peace accord” with China within a decade raised fears that, if re-elected, he would try to push Taiwan toward Unification. Similarly, Tsai’s strong rejection of the “1992 Consensus” (that there is one China but that the ROC and PRC have different interpretations of what it is) raised fears that her election would destroy the basis for doing business with China.

The cycle continued in that by late November both candidates were moving toward the middle on cross-Strait relations. Tsai pledged not to provoke the PRC and even indicated that she was open-minded about visiting China. Ma continued to voice strong support for maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty and even backtracked on his “peace accord” proposal after the negative public reaction that it produced. Thus, he quickly said that this would not be a Unification Treaty and indicated that it could only be signed if approved by a popular referendum.

Both candidates, therefore, are quite likely to want to have good relations with the United States and to try to pursue policies that are consistent with current American policy regarding the Taiwan Strait area. However, both could create problems or opportunities in cross-Strait relations that could affect the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle significantly. Ironically then, the PRC’s reaction may be the most important factor in determining how the election will affect Taiwan-U.S. relations.

In terms of challenges to the current rapprochement in cross-Strait relations, Tsai’s election would raise the most obvious problem given that her rejection of the 1992 Consensus is anathema to China. Ma’s election could raise problems as well, though, since his proposal for a “peace accord” could have raised unrealistic expectations in China.

There are also opportunities that either candidate could promote as President. The most obvious is that a Ma victory would lead to a continuation of the status quo of a “quiet” Strait. Yet, either Tsai or Ma could also promote a positive transformation in cross-Strait relations, albeit at a significant risk to the status quo. A Tsai victory would challenge the stability in Taipei’s dealings with Beijing. Yet, if China and the DPP could work out a modus vivendi, this would remove a major threat to peace and stability in the area. Certainly, Tsai appears to be one of the few DPP leaders who could make progress here. Similarly, if Ma were to pursue a “peace accord,” short-term problems would probably erupt, but a formal “live-and-let-live” agreement could ease tensions dramatically.

Cal Clark is Professor of Political Science at Auburn University, USA.