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Taiwan’s presidential election a win for democracy


On Monday, Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, was inaugurated as president of Taiwan, succeeding two-term President Tsai Ing-wen. She was the first woman to hold this top government position. Democracy is reconfirmed.

This continues significant political complications with mainland China. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won three presidential elections in a row. The party is formally committed to independence from China.

However, Mr. Lai’s vote margin was reduced and the DPP also lost its legislative majority. The conservative Kuomintang (KMT) gained the most seats. This could be a diplomatic plus given their more pragmatic approach to Beijing.

China is not happy about continued DPP control of the executive office, but greater KMT presence in the legislature provides opportunities for cultivation. China media outlets have been relatively restrained about this election result compared to past extreme rhetoric.

Both sides likely will continue to avoid armed conflict. The first DPP government, from 2000 to 2008, was able to finesse the political challenges with Beijing. Today, economic concerns remain more important than ideological purity for China’s challenged communist leadership.

In 2016, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Chicago, which represents Taiwan, hosted a remarkably instructive, insightful seminar on the implications of the return of the DPP to governing power.

There was general agreement President Tsai had effectively endorsed the framework of cooperation initiated by Beijing and Taipei in 1992. This remained true despite her 2019 speech that emphasized independence.

One participant emphasized the global importance of the Chinese people, a primary source of investment. This was a remarkably shrewd, insightful suggestion, still worth consideration by government leaders of Taiwan.

The two sides share a bitter legacy of battle and blood. In 1949, Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong’s communist forces now controlled the mainland. Except for some island territories, communist revolution was complete.

The Korean War of 1950-1953 made the Cold War global, with China and the United States direct combatants. U.S. commitment to Taiwan security became explicit.

The foundation of cooperation has been built steadily if slowly over time. Pragmatism characterizes Taiwan’s approach to mainland China. Following formal U.S. diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a consequence of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive non-confrontational strategic response.

In November 2008, agreement was reached on far-reaching trade accords, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of up to 60 cargo flights per month.

In 2010, the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was concluded. This has been a major triumph for then-President Ma Ying-jeou. His election as chief executive in 2008 and 2012 greatly furthered rapprochement with Beijing.

In February 2014, senior representatives of the island and the mainland agreed to exchange representative offices. Face-to-face negotiations were led by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun of China, and Taiwan Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi. Unfortunately, in 2016 Beijing suspended direct communications.

Taiwan has become an essential investor for the economic revolution on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese in turn are a vital source of capital for the mainland. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.

Presidents Tsai and now Lai represent equality, fairness and progress. Open competitive markets undercut rigidities of tradition and ideology. The ECFA framework is now so strong that a return to earlier hostility across the Taiwan Strait is unlikely.

Taiwan without doubt has now effectively embraced representative democracy.

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia.”

Contact [email protected]

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