TAIWAN: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
KMT victory paves way for improved China ties
, April 12, 2008
A gesture of support and encouragement from Mr Rudd for the new government in Taipei would carry a lot of weight, says Jeffry Babb.Former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou won Taiwan's recent presidential election in a landslide, paving the way for better relations with Australia, the United States and mainland China.
Ma, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, took 58 per cent of the vote, defeating the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) standard-bearer Frank Hsieh, who gained 42 per cent of the vote. The scale of Hsieh's defeat stunned the DPP faithful and lobby groups, who lost little time damning Ma with faint praise following his victory.
In his first media conference following the election, Ma announced he would open seven airports across Taiwan to flights from mainland China from July 1, overturning a ban on direct flights across the Taiwan Strait.
Ma also said he would allow 3,000 China-domiciled tourists a day to enter Taiwan, rising to 3 million annually in future. He also pledged that there would be no negotiations on unification with China and no support for de jure
independence, and that he would oppose the use of force to resolve cross-strait disputes.
Even as Taiwan's undisputed leader, Ma knows he cannot turn back the clock. Although the self-governing island is still officially part of China, and is formally known as the Republic of China, most people think of themselves as Taiwanese.
The KMT and the government of the Republic of China retreated to Taipei in 1949 after the end of the civil war in China, bringing with them several million refugees, referred to as "mainlanders", who formed the base of the pro-unification lobby. Under the KMT, Taiwan prospered, earning for itself the reputation as an "Asian economic dragon", although as an authoritarian state. The DPP's Chen Shui-bian was elected for two terms, from 2000 to 2008.
The return to power of the KMT, which had governed Taiwan uninterrupted for over 50 years, shows the durability of Taiwan's democracy. Taiwan has its problems, such as vote-buying and low-level corruption; but it is a free country, at least as democratic as Australia, and its media is more vibrant and free in news content and commentary than that of Australia.
The Taiwan Strait, when Chen was in power, was one of the world's flashpoints. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US is obliged to sell Taiwan sufficient armaments to ensure its self-defence.
Although no formal treaty arrangement exists, in practice Washington would be involved in any cross-strait conflict. During the elections, two aircraft-carrier battle groups, led by the USS Kitty Hawk
and the USS Nimitiz
, were undertaking "training exercises" to the east of Taiwan.
Relations between Australia and Taiwan will improve under Ma. Ma has visited Australia several times and can be counted as a friend. Unlike Chen, who struggles to speak Mandarin and has no English, Ma gained a doctorate in law from Harvard and his English is excellent.
Australia's nightmare has been a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, when it would inevitably be drawn in to support the United States against a major trading partner and emerging ally, China.
Australia can do much to improve the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a Mandarin-speaker and the first non-Chinese leader to speak fluent Chinese. He is viewed as an ally who understands the way the Chinese think, and a gesture of support and encouragement from Mr Rudd for the new government in Taipei would carry a lot of weight.
Many people in Taiwan remain to be convinced of Beijing's good intentions, and Rudd's support for a goodwill gesture such as Taiwan's entry into the World Health Organisation (WHO) would be welcomed. Taiwan has been trying to gain observer status to the WHO for some years. Taiwan could enter the WHO as a non-state entity - as have the International Red Cross and the PLO, for example.
For President Ma to improve relations substantially with the Communist giant across the water, he must take the people of Taiwan with him. The people of Taiwan need to be convinced that Beijing is not intent on its destruction.Ballistic missiles
The best thing would be for Beijing to remove the hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan; but a simple goodwill gesture such as removing its de facto veto against Taiwan joining the WHO would be greeted with sincere gratitude in Taiwan.
With warming relations between Taipei and Beijing, Australia will be free to improve relations with Taiwan, without fear of damaging ties with mainland China. This would benefit all parties.
Rudd carries a lot of weight in China, and Australia has an interest in including Taiwan in the worldwide fight against scourges such as tuberculosis and any outbreak of a mass contagion, such as a flu epidemic or a resurgence of SARS.
And Taiwan is, after all, a democracy like Australia.- Jeffry Babb was until recently a Taipei-based journalist.