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Taiwan President's Reelection Signals Easing Tensions with Beijing

  • Ralph Jennings

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou declares his victory in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan. Ma won a close re-election fight, leveraging his message of greater prosperity through expanded ties with China to beat his populist-minded opponent, Tsa

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou declares his victory in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan. Ma won a close re-election fight, leveraging his message of greater prosperity through expanded ties with China to beat his populist-minded opponent, Tsa

Experts say Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s reelection will further cool long-standing military tensions in East Asia. China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, sees the vote last Saturday as a chance for another four years of negotiations in Beijing-Taipei relations.

Four years ago, Taiwan’s former president was threatening to formally declare the self-ruled island independent of China. Beijing said it would use its huge military to strike the island if that happened, putting U.S. officials on edge as they hoped to maintain relations with both sides.

President Chen Shui-bian left office in 2008. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, started talking to China about trade and economic issues to help the local economy and to cool military tensions. President Ma’s reelection on Saturday with 51 percent of the vote came with a pledge to deepen partnerships with China, further reducing the possibility of conflict.

U.S. officials congratulated Ma, and the Chinese government and state media lauded the election outcome.

President Ma made his mission clear in his victory speech.

Ma said the Taiwanese people want to set aside disputes with China and to "replace danger with business opportunities. The election," he added, "confirms that people approve of a correct and effective foreign policy that is respected by other countries and gives dignity to the Taiwanese."

Taiwan has ruled itself since the Nationalist Party lost the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and fled to the island, 160 kilometers away. Beijing has never recognized Taiwan's sovereignty. When President Ma first took office, Beijing began talks that have produced 16 agreements and a dialogue framework that Beijing says it hopes will lead to talks on political unification.

Analysts say that under these conditions, the United States will be able to focus more on areas such as the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, without fearing a conflict over Taiwan. The United States is obligated to help protect the island. It also is Taiwan’s top foreign arms supplier and has remained a staunch informal ally of Taipei's democratic government, despite more formal ties with China.

But some analysts say Washington does not want Beijing and Taipei to pursue unification because it would extend Beijing’s fast-growing economic power and possibly limit American economic and military influence in Asia.

Bruce Jacobs is an Asian studies expert at Monash University in Australia. “At least parts of the United States government will very much welcome Ma’s victory, will appreciate the fact that Ma has made efforts to try to have good relations with China and that the Chinese have at least in some ways have responded to his appeals,” he said.

Political analysts say many Taiwanese -- although not always happy with President Ma’s overtures toward China or his domestic economic policies -- voted for Ma because he offered the same stability welcomed by China and the United States.

The 61-year-old career government administrator beat Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP. Her party advocates Taiwan’s formal independence from China and it backed former President Chen during his term. Tsai wants talks with China, but on conditions that she calls a "Taiwan consensus" -- a new dialogue framework approved by the parliament in Taipei.

Ketty Chen, a Taiwan-born assistant political scientist at Collin College in the southern U.S. state of Texas, says President Ma’s platform was more clear to voters. “The DPP has the Taiwan consensus, which some of them didn’t really understand. They could clearly understand President Ma Ying-jeou's position of the three no’s, no independence, no unification and no use of force,” Chen stated.

Fear of instability is a major concern among the more than 13 million Taiwanese voters. Lee Tien-yu, a 50-year-old nurse from Taipei, says Taiwan’s survival depends on its ties with China.

"Taiwan is small and domestic demand is small," Lee says. "Taiwanese work mostly in technology or service industries; China is next door with a huge market. And we can go over there and understand the language, so it’s convenient, meaning we shouldn’t compete with them," she adds.

President Ma's new term in office is through 2016. Before then, his government says it hopes to sign an investor protection guarantee agreement with China. And Beijing and Taipei say they will work to reduce thousands of tariffs on imports traded between the two sides.

Experts say China will likely seek a formal peace agreement with Taiwan and the legalization of a dialogue framework that describes both sides as part of a single China.

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