- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

U.S. officials have praised the re-election of Taiwan’s president, even though it sets the island nation and longtime U.S. ally on course for closer ties with mainland China.

“We believe that this was once again a free and fair election and that the Taiwanese people should be very proud of this milestone for their democracy,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday. “We’re going to continue to work closely with them moving forward.”

The reaction is prompting a stir among some Western observers concerned that Saturday’s victory by President Ma Ying-jeou and his Koumingtang Party presents an obstacle for U.S. strategic interests in the region.

The bottom line is that “it’s going to be harder for the United States to sell arms to Taiwan,” says Patrick M. Cronin, who directs the Asia Program at the Center for New American Security.

The United States has long used such sales as leverage in negotiations with China, if only recently to counter Chinese desires for military supremacy over the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

Weapons sales also have long been a source of friction between China and Taiwan. That friction began easing when Mr. Ma came to power four years ago and embraced a new era economic solidarity with Beijing.

A major trade deal and the opening of Chinese markets to Taiwan during the Ma administration have expanded Beijing’s influence over the island, specifically when it comes to buying U.S.-made weapons.

The U.S. has delivered to Taiwan about half of an $11 billion arms package agreed to by the Bush administration in 2001. While the Obama administration said in 2009 that it would go forward with the rest, it remains to be seen whether the Taiwanese are still buying.

During his campaign, Mr. Ma expressed an interest in obtaining U.S. fighter jets and submarines. But Mr. Cronin contends that the Taiwanese president did so to appease voters critical of his closeness with China.

“He’s now been re-elected, so now he’s got an open agenda,” said Mr. Cronin. “He’s hinted that his legacy could be to negotiation a long-term peace agreement with the mainland, and you can be sure that the mainland is going to be trying to hold him to that idea.”

China’s Xinhua News Agency reacted positively to Mr. Ma’s victory over the weekend, asserting that the election results “indicated that the peaceful development of the cross-strait relations is a correct path and has been widely recognized by the Taiwan people.”