- - Thursday, January 14, 2016

As both Beijing and Washington watch anxiously, Taiwan’s voters go to the polls Saturday and are widely expected to oust the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) after eight years in power and elect pro-independence opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen on her second try to become the island’s first female president.

A voter backlash over a weak economy and the cozy ties between government, the business community and the communist government in Beijing has enlivened an otherwise dull campaign, with Ms. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) well ahead of her KMT rival, the China-friendly Eric Chu, in the opinion polls.

The vote comes amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, as the Obama administration has tried to push back at China’s rising economic clout and its aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Taiwanese have long resented China’s belligerent approach to its sovereign claims over the island, and have only just tolerated the KMT’s like-minded attitude to Chinese unity that enabled President Ma Ying-jeou the luxury of a thaw in mainland relations since coming to power eight years ago.

That resentment, combined with economic growth of just 1 percent for 2015 and a sharp turn by young voters toward the opposition, has fueled expectations of a DPP victory and a potential collision between Ms. Tsai and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The DPP rejects Chinese claims that Taiwan is a breakaway province moving inexorably toward reunification with the mainland. It retains a charter calling for independence and would present a major diplomatic challenge for the U.S. government, which has been legally committed to Taiwan’s defense since 1979, when Jimmy Carter was in office.

Additionally, overlapping claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea have embroiled China and its neighbors in an often-tense military standoff, from Indonesia in the south to Japan and the Koreas in the northeast.

Taiwan, China and Japan are rivals for control of the northern Diaoyutai Islands, while farther south Taiwan and China are among more than a half-dozen countries advancing conflicting claims to large swaths of the Spratly Islands chain and the South China Sea.

In addition to its defense commitments to Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea, the Obama administration in recent weeks has directly confronted Chinese moves to lay down new territorial markers in the South China Sea, dispatching a U.S. Navy destroyer in October to sail through waters claimed by China to symbolize their status as open international waterways.

The latest opinion polls gave Ms. Tsai 45 percent of the vote and Mr. Chu a distant second at 16 percent. Equally important, multiple polls suggest that the DPP could also win parliamentary elections on Saturday, either outright or in a coalition, ending the KMT’s dominance of the legislature for the first time since 1949.

With few ways to directly affect the vote, both Beijing and Washington have kept largely in the background in the campaign’s final days, both mindful of the dangerous confrontation 20 years ago when China launched provocative missile tests ahead of the 1996 Taiwan vote and the Clinton administration responded by sending a naval carrier group to the Taiwan Straits.

Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters in a briefing this week that the U.S. favors peaceful relations between Taiwan and the mainland, regardless of how Saturday’s vote for president and the legislature turn out.

“We don’t think escalation of tensions is in the interests of either side,” Mr. Rhodes said. “What we want to see is calm and dialogue.”

Avoiding provocative rhetoric, Ms. Tsai, who lost a hard-fought campaign to oust Mr. Ma four years ago, has said she will not upset the status quo in relations with China. But many both in Taiwan and on the mainland recall with anxiety the DPP’s last turn in power from 2000 to 2008, when then-President Chen Shui-bian’s outspoken pro-independence rhetoric drew a sharp backlash, including military threats, from Beijing.

In part for that reason, Saturday’s vote is being watched with some trepidation across the region — and across the Pacific.

Keith Loveard, a regional security specialist with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, warned that a new Taiwanese government “that actively and overtly” pursues formal independence from China would create problems in the power relationship.

“The existing stresses over the South China Sea and the East China Sea could quite easily develop into critical points of conflict with a more overtly nationalist and anti-Beijing government in Taiwan,” Mr. Loveard said in an interview.

China and the economy

Closer to home, the politics of China have reshaped the Taiwanese economy.

Taiwan signed more than 20 commercial agreements with China during Mr. Ma’s tenure. The first direct flights and shipping links between the two were established and tourism blossomed, with 4 million Chinese tourists arriving in Taiwan each year. China is Taiwan’s most important trading partner, purchasing about a quarter of Taiwan’s exports and is just behind Japan as a source of imports.

But the exuberance of the booming cross-strait ties came to an end in 2014 when mass demonstrations forced Mr. Ma to back down on the highly controversial trade services liberalization deal, struck with China a year earlier.

It is still to be ratified by parliament, and analysts said its difficulties reflected rising voter uneasiness with Mr. Ma’s close embrace of Beijing.

China has tried to bolster its ally in Taipei, with President Xi agreeing to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with Mr. Ma in Singapore last November.

Steve Vickers, chief executive officer of Hong Kong-consulting firm Steve Vickers and Associates, said the KMT had lost its self-assurance as a party following angry student protests, sparked in response to the ill-fated services deal with China.

“Dissatisfaction is rising among younger voters, who struggle with rising house prices and lack of memory of mainland China,” he said. “2016 may prove a riskier year for Taiwan, then, with a DPP presidency prospectively resulting in higher tensions with China and a weaker economy.”

Mr. Chu has tried to sell himself as the man to replace Mr. Ma — who cannot run again after serving his two-term limit — on his economic credentials, derived from his handling of previous financial downturns while in government.

Under his leadership, he insists, Taiwan will “definitely see an economic revival.”

Mr. Ma likes to boast that his foreign policy ensured cross-straits ties have not been better since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949. This helped his government to triple the number of countries and territories that grant Taiwanese visa-free entry or visas-on-arrival.

Critics argue that while Taiwan’s business elite prospered, however, there was little trickle-down prosperity for those less well off in the years since the global recession hit in 2008.

That, analysts say, is why Ms. Tsai — a 59-year-old former law school professor who never married — has taken a clear lead over Mr. Chu, with James Soong of the center-right People First Party a distant third.

Mr. Chu’s KMT nationalists now appear on the brink of losing their majority in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan for the first time in the party’s history.

“Presidential elections in January will result in a new government in Taiwan less friendly to mainland China, prospectively leading to tensions in the Taiwan Straits and a weaker Taiwanese economy,” Mr. Vickers said in a report released Tuesday.

Low-wattage campaign

Campaigning has been lackluster for a country often dubbed one of the liveliest democracies in the region. Perhaps surprising to some, Ms. Tsai’s gender and marital status have not been an issue: Taiwan has the world’s third-lowest fertility rate, with many women opting for a career over marriage and children. Ms. Tsai has wooed voters with a pragmatic approach that her friends say is a byproduct of her master’s degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.

Supporters of Mr. Chu, the mayor of New Taipei and an accountant by training who once taught at the City University of New York (CUNY), argue his moderate approach to controversial issues had more to do with his background as a veteran politician as opposed to issues of style and image.

“A win by Eric Chu would suit Beijing far better, but this looks increasingly unlikely,” Gavin Greenwood, a regional security analyst with Hong Kong based-Allan & Associates, told The Washington Times.

He added a victory by Ms. Tsai “would alter the weather” between Taipei and Beijing, and this would be potentially dangerous.

“Heightened tension with Taiwan would be unlikely to engender any greater sense of unity among the mainland population, and a display of petulance rather than forbearance could well undermine China’s wider economic strategy,” Mr. Greenwood said.

How China chooses to respond to a big DPP win is a big variable for the coming year, and could even make its way into the U.S. presidential campaign, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, this week. Mr. Xi, she noted, has shown a “tolerance for a high level of friction with a large number of China’s neighbors,” and Beijing could be tempted to send Ms. Tsai a message if she wins.

It would be “a good outcome” if China’s leaders decided to continue to seek lower tensions and stability with Taiwan even if its ally the KMT is badly defeated, Ms. Glaser said, “but that remains to be seen.”

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