By Robin Kwong in Taipei
Harvard University may seem an unlikely electoral battleground for Taiwan politics but it was there that Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition presidential candidate, gave one of her most closely watched campaign speeches in this campaign
Speaking to students at the Harvard-Yenching library on Thursday, Ms Tsai spoke of the need to defend Taiwan’s democracy.
“Externally, the greatest challenge to our democracy comes from across the Strait,” she said. “In recent elections, the Chinese government has exerted influence on Taiwan’s elections to compel their desired outcome.”
Yet this time it was not Chinese interference but comments made by a senior US administration official that has drawn international attention to Taiwan’s upcoming election in January.
The official, speaking after Ms Tsai met a number of Obama administration officials, told the Financial Times that “she left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”
The reason why the US government’s opinion matters for Taiwan’s politics was neatly illustrated by the fact that, just two hours before Ms Tsai spoke, Jin Pu-ceng, campaign manager for President Ma Ying-jeou, delivered a rival speech just across campus at the Harvard Kennedy School in which he attacked Ms Tsai’s policies for being idealistic.
Mr Jin said the US official’s comments “reinforces what we have been saying in recent days: that Ms Tsai comes up with hollow ideas while Mr Ma presents concrete proposals.”
For the two campaigns to spar in the US rather than at home highlights how, despite Taiwan’s move closer towards China over the last three years, the US-Taiwan relationship still plays an important role for the island.
The US remains one of Taiwan’s most important trading partners, in spite of China now being Taiwan’s biggest export market.
Militarily, the US has acted as a guarantor of Taiwan’s safety against China, which regards Taiwan as its territory and has threatened the use of force should the island formally declare its independence. The clearest manifestation of this commitment is arms sales – the Obama administration is expected to soon decide whether or not to sell new F16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
Yet there is a growing argument in the US about whether or not this relationship should be maintained in its current form, given the rise of China as an international power and Taiwan’s own move towards China.
Earlier this year, Charles Glaser, professor of political science at George Washington university, stirred the debate by arguing that the US “should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan”.
This met with a rebuttal this month from Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a US diplomatic historian at Georgetown university specialising in east Asian relations, and Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow and China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“A decision to jettison Taiwan, or even cut back significantly on US support, would prove to an increasingly confident China that Washington has become weak, vacillating and unreliable,” they said in a paper entitled Should the United States Abandon Taiwan? ’.
As for the Taiwan election, Liu Yi-jiun, an international affairs professor at Fo Guang university in Taiwan, said it was “definitely a blow for Ms Tsai’s campaign” that the US appears unconvinced by her vision, “because the cross-strait relation will be one of the main focuses of the election this time”.
This is because, with Taiwan’s export-led economy likely to be dragged down by a global downturn in coming months, “neither party will want to make improving the economy a key issue,” prof Liu said.
This will likely intensify an already closely contested election. At the end of last month, Ms Tsai and President Ma Ying-jeou were polling neck-to-neck in public support, according to the Global Views Survey Research Center.