By Kathrin Hille in Beijing, Anna Fifield in Washington and Robin Kwong in Taipei
Taiwan’s elections have always had their fair share of drama. When it started electing its president 15 years ago, China fired missiles over the island and later polls saw candidates shot on the eve of the vote. But the campaign ahead of the next presidential poll in January has been remarkably dull, even though the stakes are higher than ever. Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party, aims to unseat President Ma Ying-jeou, the architect of three years of unprecedented cross-strait stability. Since Mr Ma took office in 2008, Beijing and Taipei have signed a historic trade deal, opened the island to growing numbers of Chinese tourists, and held frequent talks. This represented an abrupt change from the previous decade, when Beijing refused to talk to Taiwan’s government, Taipei focused on cementing its de facto independence and China retaliated with threats. The rapprochement was made possible by Mr Ma’s decision not to dwell on sovereignty issues and focus on the economy. On the Chinese side, President Hu Jintao bet that Mr Ma’s Kuomintang, a party founded on the mainland, might help stop Taiwan’s drift away from China. Now the January election calls everything into question. According to a recent opinion poll by Global Views Survey Research Center, Ms Tsai and Mr Ma are locked in a close race with just over 35 per cent of respondents supporting Mr Ma and about 34 per cent saying they would vote for Ms Tsai. In a very unusual move that underscores the stakes, the Obama has directly criticised the policies of one of the candidates. A senior official told the Financial Times that Ms Tsai left the administration with “distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations”. Washington, which acts as guarantor of Taiwan’s de facto independence with a legally binding pledge to help the island defend itself, has intervened in elections before, when DPP candidates campaigned on independence-related issues. However, it has rarely commented on individual candidates. The US’s involvement in the Taiwan strait was most clearly demonstrated in 1996, when China launched missiles into the waters ahead of Taiwan’s first democratic presidential elections. Bill Clinton, then US president, responded by ordering the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier into the strait. Ms Tsai, a soft-spoken seasoned bureaucrat with a PhD from the London School of Economics, is moderate compared with her predecessors. She wants to broaden the DPP’s agenda from a focus on independence to economic and social issues. Some Chinese experts recognise that. “There is almost no difference between Tsai Ing-wen and Ma Ying-jeou,” says a Chinese academic who advises the Chinese government on Taiwan. But observers warn that the cross-strait rapprochement is on shaky ground as Mr Hu’s approach to Taiwan is not uncontested within the Chinese Communist party. The party is also preparing to elect a new generation of leaders next year. “More of us have been invited over here recently and asked a lot of questions about the election,” says Chiu Tai-san, a DPP politician who teaches law at Asia University in Taichung. “[Our Chinese hosts] are all very nervous about the election because a DPP victory could be used to argue that Hu’s Taiwan policy failed.” Mr Hu has tried to help Mr Ma sell closer relations with China to Taiwanese voters by mentioning unification, Beijing’s ultimate goal for Taiwan, much less frequently. This has irked some in the Communist party. China retains a threat of force should Taipei declare formal independence. “There are voices, including within our government, that advocate less patience,” says a Chinese expert on Taiwan policy. For China’s military, unification remains a top strategic goal. It deployed missiles targeting Taiwan at an undiminished pace even as Mr Hu and Mr Ma edged closer. Xi Jinping, Mr Hu’s anointed successor, has much closer personal ties than Mr Hu to some of China’s leading generals. Analysts say these ties could either allow Mr Xi a freer hand to further relax Taiwan policy, since he has their trust, or herald a tougher line as military hawks gain influence. But before any of that plays out, Beijing will closely watch Ms Tsai’s every move. “There is a period of adjustment after every Taiwan election,” says the Chinese policy adviser. “If she gives in to the more radical elements in her party, then that will tie our hands.”
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