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Ma's re-election in Taiwan eases superpower tensions

Taiwan's re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou gestures as he celebrates winning the 2012 presidential election with supporters in Taipei Jan. 15, 2012.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters/Pichi Chuang/Reuters

Ma Ying-jeou is a divisive figure in Taiwan. His re-election as the island's president on Saturday left nearly half of voters dejected, many of them convinced that Mr. Ma will compromise Taiwan's sovereignty for the sake of better relations with the People's Republic of China.

But Mr. Ma has become a unifier on the international stage. His win over rival Tsai Ing-wen achieved the rarest of feats: winning applause from both Beijing and Washington, Asia's increasingly acrimonious superpowers who have found little else to agree on lately.

With nerves on edge across the region due to an uncertain transfer of power following the death of North Korea's Kim Jong-il, and with China upset over a shift in U.S. military focus from the Middle East to Asia, some predictability in relations across the Taiwan Strait means there's one less potential flashpoint, at least in the short term.

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Four more years for Mr. Ma and his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party will likely mean further rapprochement with Beijing, taking the People's Republic one quiet step – or more – closer to its goal of eventual reunification with the island it considers a breakaway province. Significantly, Mr. Ma's re-election will be viewed by the Communist Party leadership as proof that President Hu Jintao's softer line has yielded dividends.

There were worries in Taipei that a win for Ms. Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party would be used by hardliners in the Communist Party and People's Liberation Army to pressure Mr. Hu – and his expected successor Vice-President Xi Jinping – to resume a more aggressive posture towards the island. Beijing maintains more than 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan, and has repeatedly declared that it will use force to capture the island if it tries to gain legal independence.

"If the hawks or hardliners play up the DPP's success as a failure of Hu Jintao's policy towards Taiwan, it could be very dangerous, especially with the transition of power coming up," said Joseph Wu, a former Taiwanese representative to Washington, several days before the vote.

Instead, China's official Xinhua newswire lauded Mr. Ma's win in an editorial that ran Sunday. His victory was hardly a landslide, at 51.6 per cent of the vote to Ms. Tsai's 45.6 per cent . But the editorial cited it as proof that "the peaceful development of the cross-Strait relations is a correct path and has been widely recognized by the Taiwan people."

The Xinhua commentary, which is seen as reflecting the thinking of the senior leadership in Beijing, highlighted the progress made over Mr. Ma's first four years in office – namely the establishment of direct air, sea and mail links across the Taiwan Strait after more than 60 years of separation – and said his re-election meant "even brighter prospect and further progresses in the cross-Strait talks, exchanges and co-operation."

The White House, meanwhile, seemed nearly as happy as the Communist Party leaders, lauding the hard-fought election as proof of the "strength and vitality" of Taiwan's democratic system. In a coded endorsement of Mr. Ma's policies, it said better relations between China and Taiwan also suited U.S. interests.

"We hope the impressive efforts that both sides have undertaken in recent years to build cross-Strait ties continue," said a White House press office statement released Saturday. "Such ties and stability in cross-Strait relations have also benefitted U.S.-Taiwan relations."

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Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird issued a similarly worded communiqué following the election, saying "it is Canada's hope that improvements in relations between Taiwan and China continue, and that peace and stability are maintained through constructive dialogue." Canada, like the U.S., maintains an ambiguous "One China" policy that suggests support for eventual reunification without explicitly accepting either Beijing's claims to Taiwan or the island's current de facto sovereignty.

Douglas Paal, the former head of the de facto United States embassy in Taiwan, caused a storm of controversy when he told a local television statement two days before the vote that Washington would breathe "a huge sigh of relief" if Mr. Ma won, and that a victory for Ms. Tsai would require a massive diplomatic effort to calm China. Ms. Tsai's supporters accused Mr. Paal of trying to influence the result of the election.

While the U.S. government quickly distanced itself from Mr. Paal's remarks, Taiwanese analysts believe he was honestly reflecting U.S. sentiment towards the vote.

"I think Washington D.C. needs China to deal with Iran, to deal with North Korea. This result makes it much easier," said Yen Chen-Shen, a research fellow in the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "I think they really are breathing a sigh of relief."

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