This CRS Report analyzes the security implications of Taiwan’s presidential election of March 22, 2008. This analysis draws in part from direct information gained through a visit to Taiwan to observe the election and to discuss views with a number of interlocutors, including those advising or aligned with President Chen Shui-bian and President-elect Ma Ying-jeou. This CRS Report will discuss the results of Taiwan’s presidential election and symbolic yet sensitive referendums on U.N. membership, outlook for Taiwan’s stability and policies, implications for U.S. security interests, and options for U.S. policymakers in a window of opportunity. This report will not be updated.
The United States positioned two aircraft carriers near Taiwan. Thus, there was U.S. relief when the referendums, as targets of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s condemnation, failed to be valid. Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Ma Yingjeou won with a surprising and solid margin of victory (17 percent; 2.2 million votes), against Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Frank Hsieh.
The near-term outlook for Taiwan’s future is positive for stability and in policymaking on defense. However, in the longer term, the question of Taiwan’s identity and sovereignty as separate from the PRC remains unsettled. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has continued to build up its forces that threaten Taiwan, raising the issue of whether the military balance already has shifted to favor the PRC.
The results of March 22 sapped the PRC’s alarmist warnings about the election and referendums, although it might still warn about instability until the inauguration on May 20 while Chen is still president. Nevertheless, cross-strait tension is greatly reduced. Chen is effectively weakened and concentrating on the transition. Ma is less provocative towards Beijing than Chen. Ma gives pro-U.S. assurances. There is future uncertainty, however, as the KMT could choose to accommodate Beijing, challenge Beijing, or seek a bipartisan consensus on national security.
In one view, there is an opportunity to turn U.S. attention from managing the cross-strait situation to more urgent priorities that require the PRC’s improved cooperation, such as dealing with nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, the crisis in Darfur in Sudan, repression in Burma, the crackdown in Tibet, etc. Alternatively, a window of opportunity is presented for the first time in years to take steps to sustain U.S. interests in security and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Considerations include whether to counter perceptions in Beijing of “comanagement” with Washington and rising expectations about U.S. concessions to PRC demands, notions denied by the Administration. An issue for policymakers is what approach to take in a window of opportunity. U.S. policymakers have various options to: continue the existing approach; engage with president-elect Ma (including a possible U.S. visit before his inauguration); strengthen ties for Taiwan’s military, political, and economic security (including a possible consideration of its request for F-16C/D fighters); promote a new cross-strait dialogue; and conduct a strategic review of policy toward Taiwan.
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