What’s good for Taiwan

ON MARCH 22, Taiwan’s citizens, demonstrating their commitment to a free and open political system, overwhelmingly elected Ma Ying-jeou, the candidate of the Nationalist Party, as their new president. With 76% of eligible voters turning out, Ma beat the Democratic People’s Party candidate, 58% to 42%.

This represents Taiwan’s second peaceful transition of power through free and fair national elections; the first came in 2000, when incumbent President Chen Shui-bian, of the DPP, defeated the Nationalists, who had maintained one-party rule for nearly half a century.

Many in Europe and the U.S. have misinterpreted what Ma’s victory, combined with an earlier Nationalist Party win in national legislative elections, means for Taiwan’s future. It does not mean that Taiwan is shifting from pursuing independence from China to its very opposite, reunification with the mainland. Quite the contrary. Certainly, many Nationalists do hope for ultimate reunification. But Taiwan’s political life is far more complicated than the simplistic dichotomy in many Western media reports.

Over the last several decades, there has been remarkable stability in the center of Taiwan’s politics. Faced with the options of reunification, independence or continuation of the status quo, substantial majorities of Taiwanese have chosen the status quo, at least for the foreseeable future. That status quo is that the island is a state -- the Republic of China on Taiwan -- that meets all the key customary international law criteria: a responsible government, a defined territory and a stable population.

In a 2007 survey of public opinion in Taiwan by Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council, 81.5% of respondents said they supported maintaining the status quo while deciding on reunification or independence at an unspecified future date. Only 10.2% wanted independence “as soon as possible,” and only 2.2% wanted reunification “as soon as possible.”

At the same time, of course, Taiwanese of all political stripes complain about their international political isolation and about Beijing’s efforts to further that isolation, especially its effort to force nations to choose diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or China. Taiwanese fear that if China’s policy prevails and renders them completely isolated, Beijing would face minimal international opposition to increased hegemony over the island and, ultimately, to Taiwan’s unwilling absorption into the mainland.

Ma’s campaign focused on Taiwan’s economy, which, despite a 5.7% growth rate in 2007 -- which the United States or Europe would love to match -- has lagged compared with some other Asian economies. In particular, many Taiwanese fear that long-standing political disputes with China have kept Taiwan from fully benefiting from the mainland’s economic expansion.

This is a threat because it is Taiwan’s enormous stature in the world economy that gives it political leverage, with or without formal recognition. In fact, Taiwanese investors, managers and workers already increasingly rely on the mainland for production and distribution facilities, although they often do so in concealed and tortuous ways to avoid scrutiny by the government in Taipei. The issue, therefore, is not whether economic closeness with China is going to happen, but whether it will happen openly and more efficiently, and thus more likely to be to Taiwan’s advantage. This is the change that Ma argued he could bring.

Ma’s strong support for closer economic ties with China reflects the widely held expectation that such ties will improve Taiwan’s economic position. Moreover, in pursuit of those ties, he will downplay Taiwan’s political challenge to China, not because, as many Europeans and Americans mistakenly believe, he ultimately seeks to lay the basis for reunification, but because he believes that enhancing Taiwan’s economic strength will lead to increased political strength for whatever negotiations come later with China. That is entirely sensible. An economically weaker Taiwan is hardly well-positioned to stand up to the rapidly growing Chinese economy.

U.S. policy has long held that the Taiwanese people should make their own decisions about their political future, free from Beijing’s political or military coercion. Unfortunately, during Chen’s administration, relations between Taipei and Washington grew chilly, as much or more because of mistakes in Washington than anything Taiwan did. Whatever the causes of the tension, however, now is the time for the United States to reaffirm clearly and unequivocally that it supports the expression of the people’s will in Taiwan’s elections and will continue to stand beside its longtime ally, including through necessary military assistance.

For the United States, the clearest way of expressing that support is to give full diplomatic recognition to the state that already exists and that the Taiwanese overwhelmingly wish to preserve. Maintaining ambiguous, informal ties to Taiwan is confusing and potentially dangerous; it obscures Beijing’s understanding of just how committed the United States is to Taiwan’s defense and self-determination.

Recognition would bring stability and certainty, thus actually lowering the risks that Beijing will misinterpret the U.S. position and threaten or actually commence military action to regain Taiwan. Extending diplomatic recognition would no more prejudice the U.S.’ “one China” policy (itself an exercise in confusion and ambiguity) or the ultimate issue of reunification than did U.S. recognition of the two Germanys during the Cold War.

China will not like this turn of events, but inevitably it will have little choice but to accept dual recognition. Now more than ever, the United States -- and Europe and Japan -- must be assertive in supporting a strengthening democracy in Taiwan.

John R. Bolton is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option.”