This is a guest post from Asia Editor Zoher Abdoolcarim.
The presidency of Taiwan is an underrated yet critical job whose impact extends beyond the shores of the island. Taiwan is regarded by Beijing as a renegade province that must return to the mainland, by force if necessary. Indeed, China has, by some estimates, nearly 2,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan. Washington is obliged, through Congress's 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, to help arm the island—a commitment that brings the U.S. into potential conflict with China. During Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's first four-year term, however, relations between Taipei and Beijing have been the warmest since the Nationalists lost to the Communists in 1949 and decamped to Taiwan. The two governments abide by the notion of “one China,” the definition of which they deliberately leave vague so as to reduce bilateral tension. Ma, 61, has developed reciprocal trade, investment and banking ties with the mainland. Academic and cultural exchanges have become commonplace. An average of 3200 Chinese tourists visit Taiwan daily. There are now even direct flights between cities on both sides of the strait.
Yet, as Taiwan gears up for its Jan. 14 presidential election, Ma—leader of the Grand Old Party of Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT)—is struggling to keep power. His China policy has brought stability to Taiwan. The economy rebounded in 2010 with GDP growth of 10.8% after shrinking in 2009, and is forecast to grow 4.5% this year. Inflation is under 2% and unemployment just a tick over 4%. These are figures that any Western country today would die for. But many Taiwan citizens think Ma has sold out the island to China, pandered to the establishment, particularly big business, and devoted insufficient attention to income inequality. That's why voter polls have Ma in a statistical dead heat with his chief opponent Tsai Ing-wen, 55, head of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. When led by former president Chen Shui-bian, the DPP defied Beijing by advocating independence. Under Tsai, the DPP has moderated its China stance; it has also tackled internal party corruption, and focused on the grassroots, especially livelihood, issues, thereby boosting its popularity.