Shifting norms in cross-strait relations

Originally posted at

Paul Lau Chun Man (Hong Kong, UWC AC 2010-2012)

The most remarkable thing about the presidential and parliamentary elections that Taiwan held on January 14th 2012 may well be the simple fact that they were unremarkable. Unlike previous elections, there were no last-minute attacks, no shots fired, no Chinese missiles, no obvious US meddling, no critical Chinese coverage, indeed, coverage of the elections weren’t even censored by Chinese media. Current president, Ma Ying-jeou, was successfully re-election to a second and final term with 52% of the vote. Opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, came in with nearly 46% of the vote.

The very ‘normal’ manner in which the election was conducted may turn out to be what it is remembered for. In China, where Taiwan usually generates scorns, nasty stares and critical comments, the election was even reported on in national media, albeit in a careful manner on a very small scale. No attempts were made to remove Taiwan related news or posts from weibo (Chinese blogs) where many praised the elections. Although it seems unlikely that China will be having an election of similar scale anytime soon, the recognition of the Taiwanese election may well be an important step in that direction. If anything, it is a real and very local example of that disproves the idea that democracy begets chaos.

The election may also signal a shift in the norm for cross-strait ties. Tsai’s loss has been attributed to her rhetoric on China. Although a moderate compared to former president Chen Shui Bian, Tsai nevertheless opposed the ‘One Country principal’ of the 1992 consensus. There were even reports of many China based Taiwanese businessmen flying back to Taiwan in order to vote, and exit polls largely supported this conclusion. Taiwan’s increasing economic ties with mainland China under Ma’s term has undoubtedly increased economic prosperity in Taiwan. Most would agree that good ties with China are important to Taiwan’s continued economic success and development and that deteriorating cross-strait ties will damage business confidence.

That’s not to say that Taiwan is suddenly very happy to become part of the People’s Republic of China. It is safe to say that most Taiwanese citizens would still wish to be independent and oppose unification for the foreseeable future. But in this election, Ma’s focus on economics clearly trumped the more hard-line rhetoric of Tsai. It would be interesting to see what happens in 4 years’ time if the DPP put forward an anti-China candidate, but I doubt this will happen because it seems almost a sure-fire way to damage your campaign. The recognition that her stance on China may have cost her this times closely contested election suggests that the norm on cross-strait relations will shift slightly towards greater integration, even if only on an economic front.