Implications of the 2008 Taiwan Presidential Election for Cross-Strait Relations

Richard C. Bush

Taiwan will inaugurate its new president, Ma Ying-jeou, on May 20. Formally, he will be the 12th president of the Republic of China. Ma’s victory in the March 22 election creates a strategic opportunity to transform relations between Taiwan and China, which have been severely strained for over a decade. Over time, such a transformation will yield a significant payoff in a reduction of mutual fear and suspicion. There are, to be sure, obstacles to realizing this opportunity—most notably the sovereignty issue, the legal character of the Taiwan government. But obstacles can and should be addressed. Courage should trump caution.


Fifteen years ago there was some hope that the two sides of the Strait could build on their shared economic interests and create a climate of mutual trust and political reconciliation. It happened that Ma Ying-jeou was vice-chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council at that time.

That hope was not realized. Within Taiwan, there was insufficient consensus over the goals of its Mainland and external policy. The PRC resisted Taiwan’s effort to gain more international space. And there was disagreement between Beijing and Taipei over the sovereignty issue, not only as it applied to Taiwan’s role in the international system but also with respect to cross-Strait relations. Because of these factors, each side believed increasingly that the other threatened its fundamental interests (whether that was true or not), and each adopted policies based on those fears. China built up its military to deter, in its view, a separatist scheme. Taiwan leaders intensified claims of sovereignty as a defense, as they saw it, against PRC domination. The result was a spiral of mutual insecurity and militarization.

With Ma’s victory, along with the policies pursued by PRC President Hu Jintao, the two sides have now come back to the future.

Twin Elections

It is important to understand the reasons for the Kuomintang’s victory in the January legislative election, where it won 71 percent of the seats, and why Ma secured 58.45 percent of the presidential vote. First of all, the public was unhappy with the current situation on the island, particularly the economy, and were growing more pessimistic about the future. Voters blamed the DPP and its president, Chen Shui-bian, for the problems. Second, the KMT has gotten better at electoral politics and the DPP made some strategic and tactical errors. Third, Ma Ying-jeou was able to offer the more clear-cut vision for how to address Taiwan’s dilemma. He argued that the best way to ensure Taiwan’s security, prosperity, way of life, and international space was to reassure and engage China, up to a point. Finally, Ma and his KMT party were able to win both their core support and most independent voters


Ma’s victory creates a strategic opportunity to bring some stability and predictability to cross-Strait relations and so reverse the insecurity spiral that has prevailed since the mid-1990s. The premise of that opportunity is to reassure Beijing that his goals for Taiwan are compatible with its goals; that is, he is not a separatist. He will do this by going back to a formula called the “1992 Consensus”—an acknowledgement that there is one China but that it is interpreted differently by the two sides. That does not give China everything it might want but it should be enough.


The substantive basis of this opportunity is engagement and broadened cooperation. Here Ma’s ideas are similar to those of Chinese President Hu Jintao. Clearly, unification between Taiwan and China is not on the agenda; even discussing that is a long way off and both sides understand that. But if this opportunity for stability is realized, it will yield an improved status quo, one that is more predictable.

In terms of content, one point of reference is an understanding reached between Hu Jintao and then-KMT Chairman Lien Chan in April 2005. Its objectives include resumption of cross-Strait negotiations; an agreement to end the state of hostilities and a peace accord; economic exchanges and an economic cooperation mechanism; and consultations on issues of participation in international activities.

Second, and just as significant, are Ma’s own ideas. First are the three nos: no independence, no unification, and no use of force. Then there are the five dos: adhere to the 1992 consensus; conclude a peace accord that is reinforced with confidence-building measures; enhance finance and economic exchanges, leading to a common market; fashion a modus vivendi based on pragmatism concerning Taiwan’s role in the international community; and accelerate interchange in the cultural and educational arenas.


The most significant payoff of a process that stabilizes cross-Strait relations and makes them more predictable is that over time there will be a significant reduction in mutual fear. Leaders will be far less likely to suspect that the other side is preparing to change the status quo. They would therefore see less need to pursue the hedging and deterrence policies which so far have fed the insecurity spiral. That would represent a major change and could lead to exponential improvement in the cross-Strait relationship. The United States will welcome such an evolution since Washington has had to work to prevent the eruption of conflict between the two sides, through accident or miscalculation. If China and Taiwan are taking more responsibility for the security of the Taiwan Strait, the United States will not have to do so as much.

But there are other payoffs as well. The two sides will of course reap economic and business benefits as outdated restrictions and regulations are removed. And in an environment of coexistence and higher mutual confidence, Beijing and Taipei can begin creatively to address the obstacles to resolution of their fundamental dispute. Many things that could not happen in a climate of fear can now occur.


It’s easy to talk about a strategic opportunity but difficult to realize. Turning good ideas for stabilization into reality will not be easy. The two sides must do that together, and their interactive process must work exactly right to ensure the right policy result. Process must drive substance in addition to substance driving process. Specifically, process must enhance mutual trust. Substantive changes must foster political support on each side of the Strait.

Some near-term steps come to mind. Ma Ying-jeou can use his May 20th inauguration speech to reassure Beijing about his fundamental intentions. Beijing can signal its good will by announcing a unilateral suspension of deployment of new missiles targeted at Taiwan and a more positive approach to Taiwan’s international space. And the two sides can begin talking privately to increase mutual understanding and enhance cooperation.

Throughout this process, China should avoid a penchant for caution. Beijing will have some doubts about Ma’s intentions. It will worry (but shouldn’t) that the United States will block the process of reconciliation. But the rewards of successfully seizing this opportunity are so great—reduction in mutual fear, concrete economic benefits, and so on—that the costs of caution are severe. They include confirming the suspicion of some in Taiwan that Beijing’s goals are not benign, undermining Ma Ying-jeou’s fundamental appeal that Taiwan can guarantee its future by reassuring and engaging Beijing, and providing the DPP (which Beijing fears) its own appeal with which to return to power. Ma Ying-jeou has raised expectations on Taiwan and needs Beijing’s cooperation to make good on his electoral promises. If Beijing does not demonstrate a measure of courage, it arguably hurts its own interests.

As Taipei and Beijing work to forge a new, more cooperative relationship, they will need to be wary of the sovereignty issue. This is a disagreement over the legal character of the Taiwan government. A broad majority in Taiwan believes that it is a sovereign entity; Beijing disagrees. This issue has been at the substantive knot at center of the cross-Strait conflict. Whether it can be ultimately untied will determine whether the dispute will ever be fully resolved. In the meantime, the sovereignty issue can pop up as the two sides negotiate economic, security, and intermediate political issues. Thus, they need to develop a repertoire of means to ensure that the sovereignty issue, which is important to both sides, does not block the cooperation they both want and need.

Another complicated matter is how to foster genuine security. Both sides talk of negotiating a peace accord. But Ma Ying-jeou has also told Beijing that for that to happen, the ballistic missiles that target Taiwan must be withdrawn. That is, China’s military build-up has fostered a sense of vulnerability in Taiwan. Ma is willing to reduce Beijing’s sense of vulnerability through his political assurance. Why, he asks, shouldn’t Beijing reciprocate in an effective way? How to do so is devilishly complicated, and involves the People’s Liberation Army’s own view of the Taiwan situation and how it plays in the Chinese system.

In spite of these obstacles, however, Taipei and Beijing (and especially Beijing) should keep their eyes on the benefits to be gained from seizing the opportunity that Ma Ying-jeou’s election represents. They can transform the current, uneasy status quo to their mutual benefit, and promote peace and stability in the process. To miss this opportunity would be regrettable. It may not come again for a long time.