Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

The biggest political story last week in this part of the world was the presidential election in Taiwan. For several months before the election, it was very clear that China favored the election of the candidate of the Kuomintang (KMP Party) which has been considered friendly towards China. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has taken a more defiant stand towards China during its presidency the last eight years.

Last week, Lai Ching-te of the ruling DPP was elected president with 40 percent of the votes in a three-way contest.

However, DPP lost its control of the Taiwan parliament. The DPP share of the 113 parliamentary seats fell from 62 to 51. The KMP won 52 seats. This has made the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) with eight seats with enough power to swing a majority. This once marginal party has suddenly become the decisive party in Taiwan politics. This eight-seat victory has become the most important political story resulting from that election.

Founded less than five years ago, the TPP’s presidential candidate won 26.5 percent of the presidential vote. Political observers have said that the TPP was the big winner in the election.

It is not clear what the TPP position is regarding relationship with China. During the campaign, it focused mainly on domestic issues. It was also observed by political pundits that the TPP leaders had diverse backgrounds and interests. This led to much in-fighting and chaotic decision-making during the campaign.

At the center of attention will be the new Taiwan legislature which will convene next month and elect its speaker. Both the KMP and the DPP have candidates for the speaker’s position and are both seeking an alliance with the TPP. The TPP has so far not indicated which party they will align with. At the same time, it is also not clear whether Ko Wen-je as the leader of the party will be able to keep his group united.

During the campaign, the KMP and TPP tried to form an alliance to join forces against the DPP. This proposed partnership collapsed in a dispute as to who would be the presidential candidate.

The victory of the DPP for an unprecedented third term was a defiance against China’s warning against electing Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing calls “a dangerous separatist.” For the few who may not be aware, China claims ownership of the island of Taiwan, which considers itself as a separate nation. Taiwan is also a vibrant democracy as compared to the authoritarian rule in mainland China.

In his victory speech, Lai Ching-te pledged that they would maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait but would defend the island nation from Chinese belligerence. He said: “We are determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China.”

On the other hand, the People’s Liberation Army warned that it “remains on high alert at all times to smash Taiwan independence separatist plots in any form.”

During the election campaign, the mainland China government was clearly trying to interfere with the election process in Taiwan with its goal of electing the president from the KMP. Lai issued this statement: “The Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts by external forces to influence the results of these elections. Only the people of Taiwan have the right to elect our president.”

Although the Beijing government has threatened to use force to bring about its demand for “unification,” most geopolitical observers that there is no imminent threat of any invasion. The primary reason is that China is encountering many internal problems, especially in its economy. It has a very high youth unemployment rate, problems in its housing sector and a slowdown in its economic growth.

At present, China is seeking to improve its relations with the United States. According to Wang Yiwei, an international relations scholar in Renmin University in Beijing, the DPP victory was no surprise for China. Beijing also did not expect Lai to “… cross its red lines… such as changing Taiwan’s constitution or official name though he might occasionally tread near those lines. As long as Lai did not take steps towards formal independence, the Taiwan status quo will be kept until there is a power shift between China and the US.”

The events in Taiwan are of extreme importance to the Philippines because this island nation is actually within eyesight of the Philippines’ northern islands. The DPP victory ensures that its friendly alliance between Taiwan and the Philippines will continue.

President Marcos issued a message of congratulations to the new Taiwan government in defiance of Beijing’s warning that no country should officially congratulate the new government. However, the Philippines also issued a statement that it will continue its one-China policy.

It is important that all nations should try to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait. While maintaining the present political balance around Taiwan is very fragile, this is much more preferable to the alternative, which is the eruption of conflict that could even escalate into a war.

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