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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Analysis: Politics in the Strait

Council on Foreign Relations

March 20, 2008
Author: Jayshree Bajoria

The weekend presidential elections in Taiwan promise long-awaited changes in the tone of relations between the island and mainland China. Both candidates, Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) or “Nationalist” party and Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), say they want closer ties with Beijing (NYT).

Economic links between the two countries are already on the rise. In fact, Taiwan’s dependence on the mainland has increased. According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, China is Taiwan’s biggest export market and its preferred foreign investment destination. In 2007 bilateral trade between the countries was $125 billion, an increase of 15.4 percent over 2006.

But a government-sponsored referendum that Taiwanese will vote on the same day as presidential elections has the potential to exacerbate relations with China. The proposal calls for the island’s membership in the United Nations in the name of Taiwan. Beijing fears that if the referendum passes, Taiwan will move closer to independence from China. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned that the referendum’s approval (AP)would “threaten peace in the Taiwan Strait and the Asia-Pacific region at large.” The KMT called on its supporters to boycott the referendum (WashPost) sponsored by the DPP government, reducing the chance that it would pass.

Even as both parties appear to seek more recognition for Taiwan in the international community, economic issues and a desire to maintain the status quo with China have emerged as their overriding concerns. Both have distanced themselves from the policies of DPP President Chen Shui-bian, who has pushed for Taiwan’s independence and limiting economic ties with the mainland. An analysis in the Los Angeles Times notes that under President Chen, Taiwan has had a cool relationship with Washington, a struggling economy, and fraught relations with China.

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Copyright 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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