With Taiwan's election over, China likely to increase pressure for reunification

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Ma Ying-jeou was re-elected as the president of Taiwan over the weekend. (Photo by Mary Kay Magistad.)

Experts are speculating that Taiwan's re-election of incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou, a proponent of closer economic ties with China, may lead China to increase pressure to strengthen ties and move to reunification.

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An early sign of that came in a post-election statement from Beijing.

“The Mainland is willing to join hands with the people of Taiwan from all walks of life, as they break new ground in peaceful development in cross-straits relations,” said an anchor on China’s state-run television network. “This is on the basis of continuing to oppose Taiwan independence, and sticking to the 1992 consensus.”

The 1992 consensus really wasn’t a consensus. Beijing sees it as an agreement with Taiwan that there is one China, and it’s the People’s Republic of China, with Taiwan as its province. Taiwan views the agreement as an agreement to disagree on what “one China” means. For many Taiwanese, it’s a divided China, which may or may not ever reunite.

Actually, these days, a majority of Taiwanese identify themselves as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, and don’t want to move toward reunification any time soon. There are signs China’s getting impatient with that.

“China suffers from the rising challenger’s disease,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, who was in Taiwan for the elections.

Roy refers to how China's increasing confrontation with the United States and their balance of power – especially as it relates to Taiwan. He said China went easy on President Ma for a couple of years – increasing trade, improving ties, making no threats and saying it could be patient.

“In short order,” Roy said, “we started hearing about debates breaking out among Chinese elites about whether China’s policy was being too tolerant toward Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to take advantage of the concessions China was offering without offering anything in return to the Chinese, the benefits the Chinese wanted, the political benefits.”

By that he means political benefits that would draw Taiwan inextricably into Mainland China’s orbit, as increasing economic dependence already has.

Last October, Ma raised the possibility of a peace accord with China. It created an uproar in Taiwan. So he backed off and said he’d never do such a thing without a referendum. His re-election won’t change that, he said this weekend.

“That doesn’t mean I will go even faster,” Ma said, after his victory this weekend. “I will control the pace to make sure people can support it.”

While Ma won a majority of the votes cast, it was a much smaller majority than his first election. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party earned almost 46 percent of the vote, which could be important for Ma in future negotiations with China’s leaders. Push too much, he could say, and you risk having a DPP president next time around. The DPP tends to favor a separate Taiwan.

The question is whether that’s enough incentive for China to stay patient. Roy said there’s one thing Beijing is increasingly impatient about – U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

“Arms sales remain an impending train wreck,” Roy said. “The Ma Ying-jeou position, that arms sales contribute to peaceful cross-strait relations, is the exact opposite of the PRC position, that arms sales contribute to tensions across the Taiwan Strait. One must assume that there’s a limit to Chinese tolerance of that contradiction.”

Roy added that the strength of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan seems – unofficially – to be ebbing. At the same time, China is fast building up its military capability for, among other things, taking control of a populated island like Taiwan.

But that’s not really how China’s leaders want unification. They’re doing outreach to ordinary Taiwanese people, offering scholarships and cultural events. They’d rather seduce than overpower.

But the suitor seems to grow tired of waiting and many Taiwanese wonder whether President Ma has the strength to hold out.

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