What’s going on in Taiwan? A year ago, there were serious concerns about the viability of Taiwan democracy. The Nationalist Party (KMT) had achieved an overwhelming majority with a sweeping victory in Legislative Yuan elections and had regained the presidency as a result of a landslide victory by its chosen candidate, former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou.
Many expressed concern that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), embarrassed by corruption scandals and branded as inefficient and incapable of governing, would fade into the background, with the KMT running roughshod over the political process, implementing its policies at will.
What a difference a year makes! Today, the DPP is resurgent and seems to have the Ma administration and KMT on the ropes. It may not have been very good at running the country, but it has proven itself to be a formidable force when it comes to its more traditional opposition role. One is tempted to tip one’s hat to the DPP, except for one slight matter: its success is increasingly coming at the expense of Taiwan’s economic recovery and potentially at a risk to its security as well.
Take its latest political maneuver, for example. In the wake of Typhoon Morakot, local DPP political leaders from the seriously stricken region decided to invite the Dalai Lama to come and provide comfort to the victims of this devastating natural disaster. The DPP’s central leadership quickly — and disingenuously — called on President Ma to approve the visit and “not to politicize the event.”
All well and good, except that the DPP leadership was fully aware that the mere invitation of the Dalai Lama, seen as a “dangerous splittist” by Beijing, would invoke the ire of its giant neighbor and create a lose-lose situation for Ma. Either Ma gives in to predictable Chinese objections and denies the Dalai Lama a visa or he allows the visit and awaits Beijing’s anticipated retribution.
Politically speaking, this was another stroke of genius for an opposition party that seems to have the majority running scared, especially in the wake of negative publicity over its initial handling of typhoon recovery operations.
Ma had little option other than to approve the Dalai Lama’s visit. Beijing, for all its anger and complaints, was likely to be more understanding and forgiving than the Taiwan electorate. The Chinese leadership has figured out what the DPP is up to, but finds it hard to resist reacting. What it has not yet figured out is that it is China’s predictable protests against any action, however benign, by the Dalai Lama that makes his visits the politically charged events that they have become.
Thus far, the Chinese response has been muted: ritualistic protests and the cancellation of a number of events aimed at highlighting improved cross-strait relations. But there is a real danger that Beijing will at some point reach the conclusion that the Ma administration is too weak and incompetent to deal with and revert to its old tactic: marginalizing Taiwan and limiting its political and economic opportunities.
This could put at risk Taipei’s attempts to negotiate an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) — in effect, a cross-strait Free Trade Agreement (FTA) — with China. Such an agreement is not only significant in its own right, as a boost to Taiwan’s economic recovery, but is expected to open the door for similar FTAs between Taiwan and many of its Southeast Asia neighbors and, perhaps, even with the United States.
Unnecessarily and deliberately antagonizing Beijing just to score political points in Taiwan may have its domestic political benefits, but it could end up costing Taiwan dearly, both economically and in terms of cross-strait political stability.
Perhaps the time has come for the DPP to understand that the role of a responsible opposition is not just to oppose everything for the sake of embarrassing the party in power but to craft policies that serve both the party’s and the people’s interests.
It also seems hard to believe that the KMT, for all its political clout, has been unable to take its case to the people of Taiwan and has instead allowed the DPP to seize and keep the initiative. A more enlightened attitude on the part of Beijing toward the Dalai Lama in the future would also help.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. He has just returned from a weeklong visit to Taipei and Beijing.