Taiwan chooses closer ties to Beijing

Taiwan voters demanded a change in direction, electing opposition figure Ma Ying-jeou as its new president over ruling party DPP’s candidate, Frank Hsieh. The KMT has spent the last eight years in the minority, but the election of Ma gives them a mandate for closer relations to Beijing. Ma won in a landslide:

Opposition party candidate Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide victory Saturday in Taiwan’s presidential election, paving the way for greater attention to the economy and improved ties with the United States and China.

“Taiwan will be a responsible stakeholder,” Ma told reporters at his Nationalist Party campaign headquarters.

Analysts attributed Ma’s 17-percentage-point win to voter frustration with President Chen Shui-bian, known for his policy reversals, pro-independence rhetoric and rapid-fire staff changes.

Taiwan has flirted with independence, a dangerous act that would have almost certainly brought immediate and hostile reaction from the Beijing government. The US has long counseled against such an act, preferring to maintain the status quo that keeps Taiwan independent in fact if not in name. The new president apparently agrees, and hopes to find a balance that will keep from provoking a conflict between Taiwan, China, and the US.

At the same time, Taiwan rejected two different initiatives that would have attempted a return to the UN. One of the non-binding referendums would have had the government apply under the name Republic of China, and other as Taiwan. Both would have been seen as an additional provocation by Beijing — although with its attention on unrest in Tibet, they may not have had many options open at the moment for reaction. Although both received far more yes votes than no votes, neither of them came close to the 50% turnout required to validate them. Instead, both had turnout numbers in the mid-30s, a recognition that neither generated much enthusiasm.

The US and its Western allies will undoubtedly be pleased with these results. The last thing anyone needs at the moment is further opportunities for Beijing to overreact. Ma has promised to bolster defense spending, keeping it at 3% of GDP, and to coordinate closely with the US for peacekeeping in the region. That will be music to ears in Washington, which has wondered when Taiwan would create the next flashpoint for a foreign-policy crisis.