U.S. unusually involved ahead of Taiwan elections

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2012, 12:00am

As it pushes ahead with its mission to strengthen its presence in Asia against a backdrop of economic uncertainty at home, the United States is making a concerted effort to ensure that the status quo is maintained in Taiwan.

Ahead of Saturday's presidential election on the island, the administration of US President Barack Obama has not explicitly stated whether it prefers incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou or his main rival, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, but a series of moves in recent months have suggested Washington wants Ma to stay in office - an outcome Beijing would also welcome, as it would probably help damp down cross-strait tensions, according to analysts.

'I have been monitoring Taiwan's presidential elections for more than two decades and found that US intervention in this coming election is inevitable,' said Professor Edward Chen I-hsin, who teaches American Studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University. He added that the US wants to ensure that Ma, of the Kuomintang party, wins.

US involvement in the election has come under scrutiny after the American Institute in Taiwan, America's de facto mission on the island, announced last month that Taiwan had been nominated for inclusion in the United States' visa-waiver programme.

The institute's acting director, Eric Madison, sought to downplay links between the announcement and the election, saying Taiwan only recently completed the statutory requirements.

But analysts said Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been pushing for a visa-free arrangement with the US for years, and were sceptical of the explanation.

'Actions such as announcing only a few weeks before the election that it is about to approve visa-free entry to the US for Taiwan can only help Ma and the Kuomintang,' said Dr June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami. 'So while they say they are not intervening, of course they are intervening.'

Top US officials rarely visit Taiwan in order to avoid triggering an adverse reaction from Beijing.

However, in a high-profile visit last month, US Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman held talks with Ma and said in a speech that the US wants a broader bilateral partnership with Taiwan. Before Poneman, the chief of the US Agency for International Development, Dr Rajiv Shah, also visited the island.

However, Professor Arthur Waldron, who teaches international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, said the most striking intervention by a US official came in the form of an unattributed quote made to the Financial Times on September 15. The official said Tsai had left the Obama administration with 'distinct concerns' about her ability to handle cross-strait relations.

Although the American Institute in Taiwan later sent five officials to celebrate the DPP's 25th anniversary, some analysts say the US is telling Taiwanese politicians what to do.

'This is something that the US does not normally do with other countries,' Waldron said.

Analysts said the US had learned a lesson from former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian, who often angered Beijing with his efforts to achieve Taiwanese independence.

Although the US positions itself as Taiwan's chief defender and sells arms to the island, Washington is aware that any drastic change to the island's politics may lead to confrontations across the strait which might embroil it in conflict with Beijing.

'The US was nice to Chen Shui-bian when he first took office, which was reflected by its arms sales in 2001. But the US lost trust in Chen in later years, and the Obama administration won't believe in the promises made by Tsai,' Chen from Tamkang University said, alluding to Tsai's pledge not to adopt a radical stance towards Beijing.

Analysts have also said Washington fears Beijing would be less willing to bow to US warnings and quicker to resort to coercion against Taiwan if the DPP returns to power and takes provocative measures.

Stable cross-strait ties are seen as conducive to US designs on taking a stronger hold in Asia. The economic situation in the US is another reason Washington does not want trouble in Asia.

'Washington does not have the time to worry about possible chaos in Taiwan,' Chen said.

Despite concerted efforts by the US to maintain the status quo in Taiwan, analysts say Washington would make do if Tsai is elected.

'I don't think anyone in Washington worries that Dr Tsai would do anything rash,' Dreyer said. 'I think Washington would congratulate Dr Tsai on her election, say they will be delighted to work with her and proceed to talk with her about what they see as a reasonable future course for Taiwan.'


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