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Arthur I. Cyr: Taiwan reconfirms equality as well as democracy

Arthur I. Cyr
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President Tsai Ing-wen has been reconfirmed dramatically as leader of the government of Taiwan. The election of Jan. 11 gave her 57.1% of the vote, a stunning landslide. She is the first woman to hold this top government position, a milestone of tremendous importance.

This also continues political complications with mainland China. The current governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is formally committed to independence from China.

The DPP also retained a majority in the legislature. Ironically, the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) opposition party has been more comfortable than the DPP with pragmatic cooperation with Beijing.

The government of China predictably has complained bitterly about this latest political development. Current assertiveness of China in maritime and military terms adds teeth to the rhetoric. Beijing has already reduced - but not terminated - trade and tourism.

Nonetheless, tensions likely will continue to be mitigated without resort to armed conflict. The earlier DPP government from 2000 to 2008 was able to finesse the political challenges with Beijing. Today, economic concerns remain more important than ideological purity for the communist great power.

In 2016 the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Chicago, which represents Taiwan, hosted a seminar to review and discuss the implications of the return of the DPP to governing power. There was general agreement President Tsai had effectively endorsed the framework of cooperation initiated by Beijing and Taipei in 1992, without actually stating Beijing’s commitment to “one country, two systems.”

One seminar participant suggested emphasizing the Chinese people globally, a primary source of overseas investment. This was an insightful and shrewd suggestion, still worth consideration by government leaders of Taiwan.

In February 2014 representatives of the island and the mainland agreed to exchange representative offices. Face-to-face negotiations were led by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun of China and Taiwan Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi. In 2016, however, Beijing suspended direct communications

The two sides share a bitter legacy of battle and blood. In 1949, Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong’s armies controlled the mainland of China. Except for the island territory, communist revolution was complete.

The Korean War of 1950-1953 made the Cold War global, with China and the United States direct combatants. U.S. commitment to Taiwan security became explicit.

The foundation of cooperation has been built steadily if slowly over time. Pragmatism characterizes Taiwan’s approach to mainland China. Following formal U.S. diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a consequence of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive essentially non-confrontational strategic response.

In November 2008, agreement was reached on far-reaching trade accords, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of up to 60 cargo flights per month.

In 2010, the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was concluded. This has been a major triumph for previous President Ma Ying-jeou. His election as chief executive in 2008 and 2012 greatly furthered rapprochement with Beijing.

Taiwan has become an essential investor for the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese in turn are a vital source of capital for the mainland. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.

President Tsai symbolizes equality, fairness and progress. Open competitive markets undercut rigidities of tradition and ideology. The ECFA framework is now so strong that a return to earlier hostility across the Taiwan Strait is unlikely.

Taiwan without doubt has now effectively embraced representative democracy.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.