Is Taiwan Warming Up to Mainland China?

Supporters of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are trying to take some solace from the fact that the DPP's horrendous shellacking in the parliamentary elections on January 12 was not a direct reflection of the party's popularity.

Their rivals, the Kuomintang (KMT) won 57 of the 73 district seats -- a whopping 78% of the total.

The DPP is the party of Taiwan independence, the standard bearer for the indigenous occupants of the island who were displaced by the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated forces in 1949.

The KMT promotes accommodation with the People's Republic.

For this election, Taiwan debuted a new electoral system imported from Germany. It featured 73 winner-take-all contests meant to weed out the dingbats, extremists, and brawlers who were squeezing into the legislature with as little of 5% of the popular vote under the old multi-winner system; 6 seats reserved for Aborigines; and 34 at-large seats apportioned to representatives of the various parties based on how many votes their party (not the individuals) rolled up on a separate ballot.

Picking through the wreckage, DPP loyalists pointed to low turnout, voter unfamiliarity with the new system, and the embarrassing fact that the KMT was able to field strong, winning candidates and efforts in every constituency, in contrast to the DPP, which had traditionally relied on apportionment to get its second and third place finishers into the legislature.

A more accurate reflection of the relative popularity of the KMT and the DPP can be found in the party preference voting for the at-large seats. But that's still not a basket of good news for the DPP: the KMT won that match-up 58% to 42%.

It also happens that support for Taiwan independence -- as opposed to unification, or the murky status quo -- also consistently polls in the mid-40 percentile range.

In 2000, the election of the DPP's Chen Shui-bian to the presidency alarmed Beijing and aggravated Washington with the prospect of plenty of Taiwan independence brinksmanship.

Chen's inability to gain traction for his independence efforts -- or even budge that pro-independence number -- in spite of the bully pulpit and institutional resources his office provided him is perhaps the biggest failure of his administration.

Determined obstructionism by the KMT in the legislature played a role; so did a protracted corruption imbroglio that tarnished Chen's prestige.

But perhaps the most important factor cooling the jets of the Taiwan independence movement has been the conspicuous lack of enthusiasm from George W. Bush.

In an administration characterized by critics of reckless lurching and bombast in foreign policy, America's China policy has been, by comparison, a beacon of moderation and consistency.

President Bush has displayed an instinctive caution in dealing with China, something a handful of observers attribute to the influence of his father as well as a clear-eyed appreciation of the strategic and economic factors at issue in the US-China relationship.

Not willing to antagonize China for the sake of Taiwan independence, the Bush administration has continued to make weapons sales to Taiwan, but refused to back Chen's symbolic attempts to regularize Taiwan's position in international affairs by pushing for a place at the U.N. and other world bodies.

Not that the conservative hawks didn't give it their best shot.

As reported in Congressional Quarterly, Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson reminisced:

"The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz [and] Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week...essentially to tell Chen Shui-bian...that independence was a good thing."

Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy "right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they'd been told by the Defense Department."

"This went on," he said of the pro-independence efforts, "until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist [and] told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China."

Chen Shui-bian might have been pushing an independence policy that many Taiwanese found logically and emotionally satisfying.

However, in the face of determined PRC resistance and absent any enthusiasm from the United States for pulling the dragon's whiskers, it appears that most Taiwanese are willing to consider independence a dream deferred while they concentrate on the mundane necessities of prosperity and domestic politics.

Certainly, if the parliamentary elections were a wake-up call for the DPP, it came a little late.

Taiwan's upcoming presidential elections on March 22 will be a showdown between the DPP's Frank Hsieh (replacing Chen, who resigned his party chairmanship after the parliamentary election debacle) and the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou -a smooth, personable politician who goes out of his way to reassure the voters that he's not going to sell Taiwan out to the mainland.

Ma currently enjoys a 20% lead in the polls.

The DPP hopes for a strong turnout by its partisans, anxious to prevent the presidency as well as the legislature from falling into the KMT's hands. The turnout should also be boosted by Chen's foresight in including a referendum on supporting Taiwan's admission to the UN on the ballot, in order to energize the base.

But even if Ma stumbles, the presidency is not going to do the DPP a lot of good.

The KMT's lock on the legislature is about as absolute as one can get.

As the Taipei Times reported :

The absolute majority the KMT enjoys will give it the power to initiate a proposal and pass a resolution to impeach the president.

With its two-thirds majority, it can also recall the president.

With the help of NPSU and PFP legislators, it has the authority to put constitutional amendments to a referendum.

The victory also means that the pan-blue [KMT] camp could constitute a majority of each of the legislature's eight standing committees.

So the best that the DPP can hope for is gridlock.

And that, so far as cross-strait relations are concerned, might be exactly what Taiwan's voters want.

Pseudonymous China Hand has worked and traveled in China since 1979. He is fluent in Mandarin and has observed China's dramatic rise and recurrent crises firsthand. His blog is China Matters.