Taiwan’s President Ma Wins a Second Term
Implications for Relations with Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo

Matsuda Yasuhiro [Profile]

[2012.03.15] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang won a second term in Taiwan’s recent presidential election. Matsuda Yasuhiro, a specialist in Taiwan affairs, considers the significance of this victory for Taiwan’s relations with mainland China and with the United States and Japan.

In Taiwan’s recent presidential election, held on January 14, 2012, the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party) was reelected with 51.60% of the vote (6,891,139 votes), against 45.63% (6,093,578 votes) for his main rival, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party. In the simultaneous voting for the Legislative Yuan (the unicameral legislature), the KMT held on to a solid majority, taking 64 of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan. The results of both the presidential and the legislative elections represent an endorsement of President Ma’s conciliatory line toward China. The mainstream of popular opinion in Taiwan favors economic growth based on stable relations with the mainland.

Ma did not have it all his own way during the campaign: he was criticized for weak leadership and blamed for the sluggish economy and declining incomes. There was also widespread opposition to his idea of a peace accord with Beijing. But in the end he pulled ahead of Tsai by a substantial margin. Tsai struggled to compete with the broad support Ma enjoys among stability-seeking moderates, and in the end she was unable to persuade a majority of voters that she represented a better option for the future.

Cross-Strait Relations

A key question now is how much impact the reelection of Ma, who takes a conciliatory line toward the mainland, will have in terms of deepening cross-strait ties. Most of the relatively easy issues between Taipei and Beijing—concerning economic exchanges and institutional arrangements, for example—have already been settled. Those that remain, such as liberalizing the service sector and signing agreements on investment protection and taxes, are likely to prove much trickier. If negotiations in these areas stall, both the economic situation and relations with the mainland could stagnate. If this happens, there is a risk that Ma might become a lame-duck president during the latter part of his second four-year term.

Another focus of attention will be the extent of progress in political relations between Taiwan and the mainland, which have been on the back burner up to now. In October last year Ma floated the idea of a peace accord between Taipei and Beijing, subject to approval by a national referendum, but this proved unpopular. People in Taiwan tend to think of a peace accord as tantamount to an accord of unification with the mainland. Since over 90% of the Taiwanese public favors maintaining the status quo, the chances of any such pact being approved in a referendum would be approximately zero. Also, negotiations on a peace accord would obviously be a two-way undertaking, but with a change of leadership due later this year, it is hard to ascertain what the response would be from Beijing.

In addition to all this, a mind-boggling array of difficult questions would need to be answered before negotiations on a peace accord could even begin. Who would the negotiators be? Where would they meet? If Ma were to meet with China’s President Hu Jintao, what titles would they use, and what protocol would they follow? How would the treaty be worded? Who would guarantee its implementation, and how?

Compared to the process of concluding an accord to create a binding framework of peace for the future, a relatively simple preliminary step would be to declare a formal end to the state of enmity that dates back to the civil war between the Kuomintang and Communist Party of China. But time is short, and the opportunity is liable to be lost unless preparations start right away. We should have a better idea of how committed the Ma administration is to developing cross-strait political relations once the first appointments to senior posts are announced in May.

Relations with the United States and Japan

Assuming that Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China continues to be stable, what sort of ties is it likely to seek with the United States and Japan? Up to now the Ma administration has sought balance as well as rapprochement in relations with the mainland. Its biggest partner in this connection is the United States, and the biggest symbol of US support for Taiwan is arms sales. Each time Washington has announced a new sale of arms to Taipei, Beijing has countered with moves of its own, such as by unilaterally suspending military contacts.

In the past, the United States has gone ahead with sales to Taiwan regardless of this sort of backlash from China, but now it is dragging its feet in responding to repeated requests from Taipei for F-16C/D fighter jets to replace its aging F-5Es. Is it possible that the Americans will decide to stop selling new fighter jets to Taiwan out of consideration for the Chinese?

Without replacements from the United States, Taiwan’s air defense capabilities will decline by half over the next decade or so. In this sense, the United States would effectively be deciding to shoulder the responsibility of defending Taiwan itself or giving up on the island’s defense altogether. It is hard to imagine Washington making a policy shift of that sort following its recent move to reemphasize the Asia-Pacific region. Sooner or later the Americans will presumably decide to supply the Taiwanese with a new set of mainstay fighter jets.

As for relations with Japan, the Ma administration will probably seek to develop bilateral ties further, building on the foundations of the current relationship. Ma was initially labeled “anti-Japanese,” but in fact his administration has taken a positive approach to Japan-Taiwan relations, and the president has called for a “special partnership” between the two.

In the past, strong pressure from China, aimed at preventing the expansion of Taiwan’s international presence, made relations with Taiwan tricky for Tokyo. But the recent stabilization of cross-strait relations has made it more difficult for the Chinese to oppose stronger Taiwan-Japan ties for fear of offending the Taiwanese. This was a factor behind the conclusion in 2010 of a de facto memorandum between the Interchange Association, Japan, which represents Japan in Taipei, and the Association of East Asian Relations, which represents Taiwan in Tokyo.

Probably the Ma administration will continue to work at strengthening ties with Japan. These efforts will include various bilateral agreements. Stronger and more stable cross-strait relations will only increase the need for Washington and Tokyo to improve their relations with Taipei. Adopting policies aimed at increasing regional influence is not a Chinese prerogative. And Chinese pressure against foreign countries’ moves to enhance ties with Taiwan is definitely on the wane (with the exception of US arms sales). The opportunities to build stronger ties with Taiwan are likely to grow in the years to come—not just for Japan and the United States, but for many other countries too.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 13, 2012.)

  • [2012.03.15]

Professor at the University of Tokyo. Born in 1965. Received his PhD in law from Keiō University. Served as a visiting research fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Taiwan Research Institute, the US-Asia Institute, and the Center for Japanese Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Specializes in politics and foreign relations in the PRC and Taiwan and cross-strait relations. His publications include Taiwan ni okeru ittō dokusai taisei no seiritsu (The Establishment of a One-Party Dictatorial System in Taiwan).

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