KMT Win Poses U.S.-Taiwan Challenges; Island Weighs Peace Accord, Better Relations With China
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The Pentagon will face tough questions after landslide victories in the legislative and presidential polls gave the Beijing-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) total executive and legislative control of Taiwan. The KMT wants to establish direct air flights, confidence-building measures and a peace accord with China.
KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou, who defeated Frank Hsieh of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on March 22, will renew efforts to move Taiwan closer to China. This will reshape Taiwan’s relationship with Washington and force a U.S. rethink on strategy: Should it continue selling U.S. arms to Taiwan when the KMT plans to sign a peace agreement with China, a country many in the U.S. defense community believe is a strategic competitor?
“It’s not difficult to imagine why many friends in the defense community are concerned over the impact of a peace process on U.S.-Taiwan mil-mil relations in general and on defense procurement in particular,” said Alexander Huang, a senior associate of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who lives in Taipei. “I am quite sure that Ma understands both issues require extensive negotiations with Beijing, and negotiations must be from a position of strength.”
A peace accord with China will hinge on Beijing agreeing to dismantle the approximately 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. In response, sources believe Beijing will demand Ma limit procurement of U.S. arms.
The foundation for closer relations was laid in 2005, when KMT Chairman Lien Chan and James Soong, the People’s First Party chairman, flew to Beijing to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao. Communiqués were signed agreeing to a future peace accord. Critics accuse them of signing a secret accord for reunification upon a KMT return to power.
Progress on improved Taipei-Beijing relations is expected to be swift.
“There will be no more gridlock within the KMT in both the legislature and executive branches,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
He and several other experts spoke March 23 at a New Taiwanese Cultural Foundation (NTCF) conference, “Assessing the Meanings and Implications of the March 22 Presidential Election.” Douglas Paal, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy, said Ma’s win will greatly enhance relations across the Taiwan Strait.
“The first step was taken yesterday [March 22],” he said at the NTCF event. “The second step is for China to move to build a better relationship. This is too good to miss for China. It is no longer a zero-sum game, but a positive sum game that things will improve.”
At the same conference, Michael Swaine, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, said Ma will face challenges on how far to open up with China.
“There are some real fears and anxieties on the issue of the peace accord,” he said. “How soon should the peace accord go forward?” Swaine said Ma has to pursue a strong military to keep China from attacking, but must also control elements within his own party who want to forgo U.S. arms sales to placate China.
Over the next five years, Taiwan’s military plans to procure a variety of new U.S. arms: F-16 fighter jets, M1 Abrams main battle tanks, Aegis-equipped destroyers and diesel submarines. Ma has called for a defense budget increase to 3 percent of gross domestic product, from about 2.5 percent currently, and requests for more advanced U.S.-built arms are expected to rise. However, arms sales could cause problems with cross-Strait relations and Ma might choose to avoid angering Beijing, Alan Romberg, senior associate at the Stimson Center, Washington, said at the NTCF conference.
Arthur Ding, a cross-Strait military affairs expert at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations here, said a peace agreement with Taiwan would cause problems with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), “because the PLA will have to redefine its role and mission. If the PLA continues upholding its traditional liberation role against Taiwan, Ma will have a rationale for requesting arms sales from the U.S. So, the ball is actually in China’s court.”
“The real source of cross-Strait tension is distrust between leaders on both sides,” Huang said.
“Conciliatory policy measures toward China may be seen as problematic, but tension works to no one’s interests, either. What Taiwan needs is to be smart enough to play a two-hand strategy, engaging political dialogues with China while enhancing security links with the U.S. The remaining question, then, is how smart the next government is and whether it can put the right personnel in the right positions, and make sure they work together well.”
Despite Ma’s promise not to engage in unification talks during his tenure, many in Taiwan say eventual unification is now unstoppable.
Michael H.H. Hsiao, executive director of the Taiwan-based Center for Asia Pacific Area Studies, Academia Sinica, believes China will do nothing until 2009, when Beijing will increase pressure on the KMT.
The critical window will be 2010-12, when Taiwan will have to make a decision, he said March 24 at a conference here, “Taiwan Forum: 2008 Presidential Election: Impacts and Implications.”
Beijing was enraged by DPP attempts to establish formal independence over the past eight years. Demoralized, the DPP will have to bide its time until the next election, but many say 2012 will be too late to stop unification momentum.
“Beijing’s fear of de jure independence is over,” said Lo Chih-cheng of the Taiwan Thinktank, which sponsored the March 24 conference. “Beijing’s next goal will be de jure unification within the next five years.” However, agreements with Beijing may not come quickly.
Beijing moves at a lumbering pace and can’t turn on a dime,” Paal said at the NTCF conference.
Though a peace accord with China could dampen arguments for U.S. arms, direct flights could be the death knell.
Ma is proposing launching a “cross-Strait transportation line” with weekend charter flights as early as July, with 3,000 Chinese visitors a week and increasing to 3,000 a day within a year. Charter flights now are allowed only during four annual holidays; travelers between Taiwan and China at other times must transit via Hong Kong or Japan.
Taiwan has a relatively small population of 23 million, and some fear direct flights would lead to a human flood of mainland Chinese who would eventually dominate Taiwan’s economy, politics and society.
Citing the level of corruption in Taiwan, one U.S. source predicted China’s influence over Taiwan’s government will increase, and that China’s ability to insert intelligence agents will skyrocket.
Lin Chong-Pin, former Taiwan deputy minister of defense, argues that the influence of the Chinese visitors will work two ways: Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, which is “already growing fast, will rise further, social integration across the Strait will accelerate, Taipei’s political ties with Washington will slowly weaken.”
Beijing’s reliance on military force to achieve reunification, he said, will “slide in priority and give way to extra-military instruments such as socio-economic integration and political influence.” Lin, now president of the Foundation on International and CrossStrait Studies, said the interchange also will “sow the seeds of democracy” in China.