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The Blue and the Green

Taiwan picks its presidential candidates.

12:00 AM, May 9, 2007 • By CHRIS GRIFFIN and GARY SCHMITT
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THE U.S.-TAIWAN relationship is on life support. Over nearly seven years of concurrent presidencies under George W. Bush and Chen Shui-bian, the bilateral relationship has deteriorated to the point that Bush has repeatedly rebuked Chen, either publicly or through emissaries, over perceived broken promises and for "provoking" Beijing by trying to consolidate the country's de facto independence. The approaching March 2008 presidential election in Taiwan offers an opportunity for Washington and Taipei to begin mending the bilateral relationship, and also for the leading Taiwanese candidates to propose positive visions for future U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Today, Taiwanese politics are split into two main camps divided on the essential question of Taiwan's fate: the "pan-blue" coalition of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the People's First Party seek eventual reunification with mainland China, while the "pan-green" coalition of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Taiwan Solidarity Union work toward permanent Taiwanese independence. In each coalition, the latter, smaller partner advocates the more radical version of their respective platforms, while the KMT and DPP compete for the decisive middle segment of Taiwanese voters who favor maintaining the "status quo" for the foreseeable future.

For a brief spell last year, it appeared that the 2008 election was headed for a landslide victory by the KMT. Then-Taipei mayor and presumptive KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou was riding high in public polls. A spring trip to Washington, where he was feted by American officials and China hands, seemingly confirmed his status as Washington's preferred candidate. Ma's pledge to seek closer economic and political ties with Beijing promised to cool down tensions in the Taiwan Strait, where many Americans feel a conflict would drag the United States into a war on behalf of the island's independence movement.

But just as Mayor Ma sealed his image of electoral invincibility late last year, he found himself the subject of an inquiry on the misuse of the city's special expenses account, leading to his February 2007 indictment for corruption. Although Ma used the day of his indictment as an opportunity to declare his bid for the presidency--the popular vote being the ultimate acquittal, he explained--the uncertainty surrounding his fate has thrown the 2008 presidential race wide open. And here in Washington, there are new doubts as to whether Ma is the right man for the job after all. First, there is Ma's anti-Japanese rhetoric, which complicates security relations with our most important East Asian ally. But equally problematic is Ma's failure to put an end to his party's legislative strategy of filibustering defense spending bills necessary to purchase the major American defense systems offered by President Bush since 2001.

The first test of the 2008 election is playing itself out now as the KMT and DPP have formally selected their presidential nominees. For the KMT, Ma sailed to an easy victory last week. The DPP had a wider field in the primary: Vice President Annette Lu, Premier Su Tseng-chang, DPP chairman Yu Shyi-kun, and former Kaosheng mayor and premier Frank Hsieh. Hsieh's win in the May 6 party-members' vote led both perceived-frontrunner Su and Chairman Yu to drop out, leaving only the long-shot Lu to make a nominal contest of the May 10, open straw poll that should confirm Hsieh's candidacy.

After almost eight years of tension between Washington and Taipei over President Chen's efforts to expand Taiwan's "independent space," the question of whether or not the next DPP candidate takes a more nuanced attitude toward U.S.-Taiwanese relations is critical and has received tremendous attention from Foggy Bottom and Asia watchers. By far, the most contentious questions are what positions the candidates take on the question of "constitutional revision" and the "four no's," a pledge by President Chen in 2000 not to take measures that could clear the way for de jure independence.