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U.S. scholar worried about Taiwan elections, cross-strait future

2019/05/20 19:39:27

Shelley Rigger, a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) / CNA file photo

New York, May 19 (CNA) A U.S. scholar has voiced concern that Taiwan will not be able to elect a moderate candidate in the 2020 presidential race, which she said could present a "plausible path to disaster in the Taiwan Strait."

"At this moment, as Taiwan's political parties battle over their presidential nominations, I am more worried about the future of the Taiwan Strait than I have ever been," wrote Shelley Rigger, a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in article titled "Taiwan on (the) Edge."

"Ominous trends are building on all three sides of the (Washington-Beijing-Taipei) triangle, and conflict could be the result," she wrote.

"It is by no means inevitable, or even the most likely future. But for the first time in decades, I can see a plausible path to disaster in the Taiwan Strait," she said, pointing to factors in Beijing, Washington and Taipei.

Beijing, she wrote, has tightened the screws on Taiwan, shutting out the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and increasing its military activity in the region.

In the United States, the Congress has shown support for Taiwan by passing the Taiwan Travel Act, Asia Reassurance Initiative Act and Taiwan Assurance Act, but "it's not clear what priority the Trump White House actually places on its friendship with Taiwan, relative to relations with the PRC and other considerations."

Rigger said several actions taken by Trump have been damaging to Taiwan's interests, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the imposition of tariffs on China.

The TPP withdrawal "demolished" Taiwan's best chance to avoid economic isolation, and the tariffs against China could lead to huge losses for Taiwanese companies that manufacture or assemble products in China, she wrote.

Another problem, Rigger wrote, has been that "Taiwan doesn't matter in a foreign policy guided by Trumpian principles of unilateralism and transactionalism. Taiwan's value to the U.S. is its democracy, a virtue on which this administration places little importance."

In Taiwan, Taiwanese voters have refused to embrace extreme candidates or novel policies for decades, but it is not clear whether that center can hold through the presidential and legislative elections in January 2020, she said.

"My greatest concern is that there will not be a competent moderate on the ballot at all," she stressed.

According to Rigger, incumbent Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is moderate if judged by the standards of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but she is facing a fierce primary challenge from former Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德).

"A poll-based primary is likely to favor Lai, who will benefit both from the buzz surrounding his candidacy and the likelihood that KMT (Kuomintang)-leaning voters will try to trick the DPP into nominating a candidate whose support is limited to one end of the political spectrum," she said.

At the same time, the establishment candidates of the KMT, Eric Chu (朱立倫), Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), and Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋), could be marginalized by two upstarts -- Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and Foxconn Technology Group founder and chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘).

Han's answer to Taiwan's economic troubles is to deepen ties with the PRC, Rigger said, while Gou's success as a China-based manufacturer is a two-edged sword.

"For Taiwan's more Sino-philic voters, his decades spent navigating the PRC business world are a plus. He has strong relationships with PRC leaders, and he's used them to build his company into a world-leading EMS provider," she wrote.

"For Sino-skeptics, however, the prospect of Terry Gou -- a man who became a billionaire by building a business in the PRC -- as president is deeply worrying," she said.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) is another unpredictable element in the race, Rigger said, though he has not yet declared his intention to run.

Ko, an independent, tends to have vague positions on issues, and "he can sound naive" on cross-Strait relations, she said.

"There's no question that Beijing would prefer to see any of the KMT candidates prevail over Lai or Tsai. PRC leaders also have reached out to Ko, who seemed, for a time, to be the best chance for unseating the DPP. But electing Han, Gou, or Ko could set Taiwan up for even more trouble," Rigger contended.

It is increasingly likely, she wrote, "that next January Taiwanese will be asked to choose among extremes: a pro-independence DPP candidate, a pro-unification KMT candidate, and an independent whose ability to hold his own in interactions with Beijing is untested."

"If that is the outcome, Taiwan will not remain the stabilizing force that it has been since at least 2008," she predicted.

And that could lead to different reactions from China and the U.S. that could only complicate relations within the triangle.

"With all three sides of the triangle in a heightened state of uncertainty and flux, managing relations is more important than ever. None of the three sides seems particularly well-situated to pulling off that difficult task," she wrote.

(By Flor Wang and Ozzy Yin)
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