With 700 reporters descending on the island to cover our elections, plenty of media coverage of Taiwan can be expected in the next few weeks. Max Hirsch at Kyodo has a long study of the UN referendum mess:

FOCUS: Taiwan politicians prepare for doomed referenda as election nears

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With Taiwan’s March 22 presidential election just days away, Chen, under intense pressure from many parties, appears “desperate” — in the words of some pundits — to distance the DPP from its seemingly doomed referendum, which will be held simultaneously with the election.

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“Chen is worried about ‘face’ at this point,” said one main opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) insider, referring to Chen’s bid to avoid a stunning electoral defeat for his party’s “U.N. referendum.”

In recent weeks, Chen has offered to negotiate with the KMT to win its backing on a revised U.N. referendum or a revised date for the current referendum in attempts to ensure its passage, or at least protect the DPP’s reputation should it fail to pass.

Controversial at home and abroad, the referendum has stoked cross-Taiwan Strait tensions by asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty by suggesting the self-ruled island is qualified for full-fledged membership in the United Nations.

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Last year marked the first time Taiwan applied, again unsuccessfully, for U.N. membership as “Taiwan.” That assertion of sovereignty riled Beijing while whipping up support locally for the referendum to punctuate failed applications.

“We hope the referendum passes as it reflects the will of the Taiwanese people for Taiwan to participate in the U.N.,” said Hsiao Bi-khim, the DPP’s director for international affairs.

But plenty of critics hope otherwise, especially the United States, which has slammed Taiwan for “unnecessarily” provoking China with its referendum.

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“Chen is under enormous pressure from the American Institute in Taiwan,” said KMT legislator John Feng, referring to Washington’s de facto embassy in Taipei.

The referendum, experts say, is behind a bottoming-out of U.S.-Taiwan relations. The European Union also opposes it.

But it is perhaps pressure from local parties that is beginning to shake Chen’s resolve. Last month, Chen sought to broker a compromise over the referendum with the KMT, which opposes holding it on Election Day as a way to draw pro-independence voters to polls.

Chen proposed combining the content of the DPP’s referendum with that of the KMT “to send a unified message to the world” that rejoining the United Nations is a shared aspiration of both the ruling and opposition camps.

In reaction to the DPP’S referendum, the KMT has sponsored one of its own, asking voters whether Taiwan should “return to the U.N. under its official title, ‘the RoC,’ or any other dignified title.”

The KMT ruled out cooperation with Chen as the possibility of its boycotting both referenda, which would virtually guarantee that neither would pass, loomed large.

Last week, Chen offered to hold the DPP referendum at a later date in exchange for KMT cooperation in amending the Referendum Law to lower the 4.25 million-ballot threshold for passage.

The KMT, which officially supports unification with China, enjoys a more than two-thirds parliamentary majority. Predictably, the powerful opposition party balked at Chen’s latest proposal.

“We can’t lower the threshold and just start passing whatever referenda come our way,” Feng said.

Chen’s motivations for his latest offer are twofold, says Lin Chung-pin, director of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies, a Taipei-based think tank.

Firstly, the latest proposal gives the DPP a scapegoat in the KMT for the ruling party’s referendum’s likely washout at the polls, Lin says. That the KMT refused to collaborate with the DPP in passing a referendum that voices Taiwan’s interests takes some of the blame off the DPP’s — and Chen’s — shoulders.

“I think Chen’s own interests are first and foremost in his mind,” Lin said.

The move could also be a vote-getter, he added.

Former President Lee Teng-hui, the “godfather” of Taiwan’s independence movement, has expressed concerns over the international community’s analysis of the likely failure of both referenda to pass, and is pressuring the DPP to avoid that scenario, according to Lin.

“Lee is upset that the message that could go out to the world is that the Taiwanese people don’t care about acceding to the U.N. So it could be that the TSU is exerting pressure on Chen to work with the KMT to ensure passage of the referenda, and the interests of Chen to have somebody to blame if the referenda fail, are converging with Lee’s concerns,” Lin said, referring to the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a fringe pro-independence party that Lee founded.

Chen’s proposal could serve to appease Lee, who still holds much political sway, and TSU voters on the eve of the election, Lin says.

Chen’s bids to bargain over the referenda could also impact directly on KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou, says Christopher Hughes, a Taiwan expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“Ma faces a real dilemma,” Hughes said. “It’s hard for Ma to back down and call for…a boycott because doing so…would open up his Achilles heal on not being loyal to Taiwan.”

Ma is running a tight race against DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh, who accuses him of lacking fealty to Taiwan and identifying with rival China. Nonetheless, Ma enjoys a comfortable lead over Hsieh of 10 to 20 percent in recent polls.

“With Ma having…supported the KMT referendum quite strongly, this gives Chen some leverage to get the best out of a deteriorating situation,” Hughes said.

Sensitive to Ma’s vulnerability, the KMT’s Central Standing Committee is expected to call on voters Wednesday to cast ballots for the KMT plebiscite, while “respecting” voters’ decision to boycott both, the KMT insider says.

Already, many KMT heavyweights have veered from that party stance and are calling on voters to blackball the referenda in what is shaping up to be a de facto, across-the-board KMT boycott, all but promising another setback for the cause of U.N. entry for Taiwan.

Note the nice observation from Chris Hughes — that the referendum forces Ma to look anti-Taiwan if he opposes it. While the media has sucked up the claim that Chen Shui-bian is forcing the referendum on Hsieh so he can lock Hsieh into his “radical” policies (only in the Taiwan context is a referendum “radical”!), few have observed how Ma has become marginalized by the ideologues who run his party, and how they have locked him into their radical anti-Taiwan posture. Ma’s campaign people have done a good job downplaying this (look carefully on his campaign posters — see any references to the Chinese Nationalist Party?), his party’s longstanding anti-Taiwan stance may yet be his undoing.

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Asia Times has a long piece of the recent Pentagon report on China’s military expansion. At the end, he concludes:

KMT standard-bearer Ma Ying-jeou, while favoring improved ties with the mainland, has also declared that an arms buildup was necessary in order to achieve that goal: “We must build leaner but stronger forces … in the face of the Chinese communists’ fast military expansion.” Speaking to a strategic seminar last month, the former mayor of Taipei said that such forces “must be capable of crushing out the enemy from the onset in case of war” so that “the Chinese communists would drop the idea of taking Taiwan at a minimum cost”. Ma’s DPP opponent, former premier Frank Hsieh, has likewise stressed the importance of defense spending: “Taiwan needs to continue buying defense equipment and to make its defense budget more than three percent of GDP.”

If Taiwan continues upgrading its defense capabilities, as appears likely irrespective of the election results, it will also be indirectly advancing US interests in the western Pacific rim, both strategically vis-a-vis China’s ambitions for regional hegemony and operationally as a potential partner in the event of a security or even humanitarian crisis in the region. Carefully managed, a policy of actively helping Taiwan help itself will pay healthy dividends into America’s East Asian and even global geopolitical accounts.

I wish writers would stop saying “Ma, whose party favors closer relations with China….” Both parties favor closer relations with China. The DPP just isn’t willing to sacrifice Taiwan for them. Time to find a new media trope to describe Ma’s pro-China position. Come to think of it, why not say “pro-China” and be done with it?

In Honolulu commentator Bill Sharp remarks on the fact that repairing US Taiwan relations depends on the election of two presidents:

Any one-sided, coerced “settlement” by the PRC to alter Taiwan’s status would hurt U.S. strategic regional and international interests. American credibility would be severely tarnished, and its ability to play a leading role in East Asia as a stabilizing force would be seriously impaired. Moreover, PRC control of Taiwan would also give it a stage to further extend its influence into the Western Pacific, again at the expense of the United States.

The AEI-Armitage Report comes in the midst of the final run-up to the Taiwan presidential election March 22, the U.S. presidential election further down the road, and the opening of China’s annual National People’s Congress last week. Both Taiwan presidential candidates realize that Taiwan’s relations with the United States have suffered and require immediate repair. U.S. presidential candidates are primarily concerned with the Middle East and need to present a broader world view. Hard-hitting statements about Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan are common fare in the NPC and foster a sense of unity among representatives while eliciting uniformly deafening applause.

This year, Communist Party General Secretary and Chinese President Hu Jintao might have gone a step further by offering Taiwan the opportunity to engage in peace talks with the mainland on an equal basis if it acknowledged Chinese sovereignty based on the “one nation, two systems” notion. Taiwan rejected the offer given the condition, as it has consistently done in the past. At the same time China was offering peace talks, it announced a double-digit increase in military spending for the 19th time; this time at the clip of 18 percent, bringing the total officially acknowledged budget to $59 billion.

With their eyes on China, the winners of both presidential elections will be the decisive factors in determining the course of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The AEI-Armitage report also contained a bunch of suggestions for how the island can improve its economic position.

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Twilight for Hsieh? A-gu over at That’s Impossible blogs on the polls:

A TVBS poll shows 50% support for Ma and 31% for Hsieh, while China Times shows 49% for Ma and 22% for Hsieh. And Apple daily is publishing a “projection” of the election outcome being conducted by National Sun Yatsen University, based on its own opinion polls between the 5th and 7th of this month. That poll found 41.3% support Ma, 19.8% supporting Hsieh, and 38.9% undecided; based on this, they project a final result on March 22nd of 56.4% of the vote for Ma, 29.9% for Hsieh, and 13.7% being “unpredictable.” Apple turns that into a headline of Ma 56%, Hsieh 43%. And Swarchy sees no reason to doubt a Ma victory yet.

I’m skeptical that Ma will win by 13%, or by the 20% or more figures found in the pro-Ma papers. They could be right, but their history is so bad it is pointless to even discuss them, other than to dismiss them.

Notable: last week KMT Chairman Wu Po-hsiung said Ma was only up 10% in the KMT internal polls and asked his voters to disregard the pro-Blue polls and come out and vote — do we mentally halve or double that figure? A commentary on Taiwan’s neglect of international news noted that PRC analysts had Ma up 6% over Hsieh, and two nights ago, Maddog informed me, Ma was up 43-37 in a poll on the Talking Show, which they said was a DPP internal poll as of Mar 1. The vast clump of cagey and/or undecided voters makes predictions difficult.

You can’t even argue that things might follow previous elections — in 2000, over 60% of voters opted for Blue presidential candidates. In 2004, the majority went for Chen, but there were a large number of invalid votes, nearly 3X as many as normal. Which election is the “normal” one? If we take 2000, Ma will win easily by over 10%. If we take 2004, Hsieh will win by 100-150K votes.

Despite the hype in the media, in terms of the vote count, the recent legislative election election was perfectly conventional. By contrast, the 2004 legislative election was a total anomaly, with 600,000 KMT votes not appearing. Does that suggest the 2004 presidential election was an anomaly as well? Maybe.

Note that the KMT is playing it safe in this election and there is no “invalid vote” campaign this time around. Do they fear a close one?