The Taipei Times headline says it all: US wary of warmer Taiwan-China ties. Charles Synder in Washington tells the tale:

Some US officials fear that under Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) presidency, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) might swing far enough toward China that it could affect US interests in Taiwan and damage US interests in the region, a new congressional report indicates.

This, despite the fact that Ma has said he will place a high priority on repairing strained Taiwan-US ties that accompanied President Chen Shui-bian’s ( 陳水扁) last few years in the presidency, the report, an internal memo to congressmen from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says.

The report, dated Wednesday, analyzes last month’s presidential election and Ma’s landslide victory and its likely impact on Taiwan’s domestic situation and relations with Washington and Beijing.

Based on conversations with US officials while the author, Kerry Dumbaugh, was in Taiwan to observe the election and other sources, the report says: “Some observers in the past have expressed concern that the United States may have underestimated the importance of the sea change in KMT thinking that arose from the visits to the PRC by senior KMT officials beginning in 2005.”

I’ve been saying that Ma is going to hurt US security interests, as have conservatives who are China hawks — but the report focuses less on this issue than the Taipei Times lead would have you believe. The summary:

In a large turnout on March 22, 2008, voters in Taiwan elected as president Mr. Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist (KMT) Party. Mr. Ma out-polled rival candidate Frank Hsieh, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), by a 2.2 million vote margin of 58% to 42%. Coming on the heels of the KMT’s sweeping victory in January’s legislative elections, the result appears to be a further repudiation of DPP leader and Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s eight-year record of emphasizing a pro-independence political agenda at the expense of economic issues. President-elect Ma,who will begin his tenure on May 20, 2008, has promised to improve Taiwan’s economic performance, to improve Taiwan’s damaged relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to address any annoyances in Taiwan-U.S. relations arising from the Chen Administration. This report will not be updated.

You can see that Dumbaugh’s construction of the election simply echoes the KMT line: Chen “emphasized independence at the expense of economics” which is nothing more than a KMT talking point. Further down, in the key paragraphs at the end on the implications of the election for the US, Dumbaugh says:

For U.S. Relations. U.S. officials say they have had strong ties with Taiwan’s DPP government and had developed a considerable network of working economic and military ties with Taiwan under President Chen. But such problems of trust had developed between President Chen himself and U.S. officials that many believe the bilateral atmosphere can onlyimprove under the new KMT leadership. President-elect Ma has said he will place a high priority on repairing any residual difficulties in Taiwan’s relations with the United States. Still, some observers in the past have expressed concern that the United States may have underestimated the importance of the sea change in KMT thinking that arose from the visits to the PRC by senior KMT officials beginning in 2005.

Those visits, according to this view, may have given pro-China interests in the KMT a new, alternate vision for Taiwan’s future. If this concern is founded, one consequence could be the growing inurement of the KMT to U.S. pressure or interests. For instance, Taiwan could resist U.S. pressure that it increase military spending on the grounds that such expenditures are too high, too confrontational, and maybe unnecessary in light of potential improvements in cross-strait interactions. Some worry then that the KMT, driven in large part by economic imperatives and pressures from the Taiwan business community, could reach an accommodation with Beijing that ultimately may damage U.S. regional interests.

Note the lead sentence that says Ma may place a high priority on relations with the US — with the implication that what follows contradicts that position. But if Ma and his handlers really intend to shift Taiwan into Beijing’s orbit (no shit, sherlock! Goes without saying) then of course they must place a high priority on upgrading US relations — Uncle Sam will need to be bamboozled and placated while having the rug pulled out from under him. Hence, ascendancy of a pro-Beijing policy entails warmer relations with the US, if things are run smartly. The report leaves out any mention of the Bush Administration’s role in screwing up US-Taiwan relations.

However, it is important to note that this is just a couple of paragraphs in a report of a dozen pages. The majority of report discusses the challenges facing Ma (no mention of Ma’s past ideological positions is made, and longtime Ma watchers here will richly enjoy Dumbaugh’s assertion that Ma has “a reputation for thoughtful conciliation”), along with the implications of the election for the DPP and the KMT, implications for the PRC, and its possible reactions. Of the last, Dumbaugh notes:

Despite the challenges that Ma faces, many believe that the election results have placed the real burden for an improved Taiwan-PRC situation squarely on Beijing. According to some observers, the Taiwan electorate’s choice of Ma and rejection of the two referenda to which Beijing objected are seen as a first step toward cross-strait improvements. Having railed against President Chen for eight years while wooing the KMT, the PRC now will have to follow through with creative initiatives with the Ma regime if it is to capitalize on the election results. The opportunitywould appear to be too good to miss. Rebuffing a new and more conciliatory Taiwan government could damage the PRC’s credibility that it wishes to pursue a peaceful and constructive solution for cross-strait ties. Any perceived PRC reluctance also could serve to revitalize U.S. and congressional opposition to the PRC’s Taiwan policy — opposition which has remained muted in recent years in part because of mutual U.S.-PRC problems with Chen.

Observers suggest there are a number of options now for Beijing to make a meaningful gesture toward Taiwan that would not impinge on PRC sovereignty claims. These could include a willingness to invite (or to be willing to discuss inviting) Taiwan to be a “meaningful participant” in the World Health Organization (WHO); an invitation to restart cross-strait talks on a mutually acceptable basis; a halt to petulant posturing against Taiwan in APEC and other multilateral organizations; or asuspension of Taiwan-focused military exercises and other military maneuvers in the strait, among other acts. In the wake of the election, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao has expressed hope that cross-strait talks can resume quickly on the basis of the “1992 consensus.”

Unfortunately, past experience demonstrates that the PRC often is unable to adopt creative and flexible policy initiatives at times of great tension — as is currently the case with the crackdown against demonstrations in Tibet — or when there is intense pressure to be seen to be successful — as there is now in the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. In addition, some have suggested that Beijing remains concerned about potential controversies that could arise during the remainder of President Chen’s term, before Ma takes office on May 20, 2008. For these reasons, many feel that, at least in the short term, Beijing may be unable to make an important overture to the incoming Taiwan regime.

The report looks at several possibilities, but it is good to see a significant departure from the Establishment position that Ma will somehow be safely constrained in his relationship with Beijing by Taiwan’s divided society. He won’t be. The main constraints on Ma are more likely to be the structural weaknesses of the President’s position, and the greater power of legislature, as well as the differing views with the KMT itself — and the attitude of the US and the other regional powers.

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