Saturday's local city and country elections in Taiwan have dramatically changed the island's political landscape. In what amounted to a referendum on the performance of President Chen Shui-bian's government, his Democratic Progressive Party lost every seat outside its traditional southern strongholds, leaving it holding only six of Taiwan's 20 major constituencies. President Chen's major national rival, Taipei Mayor and Chairman of the opposition Kuomintang party Ma Ying-jeou is now certain to be his party's standard bearer in the 2008 presidential election. And improved relations with Beijing are at the core of the attractive, Harvard-educated, KMT leader's policy platform.
That doesn't mean the results were a referendum on Taiwan's relations with China. Although the KMT did push this issue more strongly than any other during the campaign, while President Chen tried to portray a vote for the KMT as a surrender to Beijing, polls show that a significant majority of Taiwanese voters remain highly suspicious of China's intentions. For them, the DPP leadership's hyping of the issue during the final stages of the campaign was simply another attempt to distract attention away from the myriad of corruption scandals and policy blunders that have plagued President Chen's administration.
The DPP's defeat included losses in three of the party's most important battlegrounds. The most startling was its defeat in Taipei County -- the largest county in Taiwan -- which Yu Ching, a popular pro-independence figure, first took for the DPP in 1989 and the party has held in several elections since then. But the DPP's position in the county was seriously undermined last year, when President Chen tapped its popular county magistrate Su Tseng-chang to become DPP chairman. In his place, the party sent Luo Wen-chia, a young presidential aide, to run for Mr. Su's former seat -- prompting predictable accusations of presidential cronyism.
The president's party also lost in Ilan County, historically the major stronghold of independence sentiment in northern Taiwan. The Ilan defeat was particularly dispiriting to the DPP because its candidate, former Justice Minister Chen Ding-nan, was seen as one of President Chen's few competent cabinet ministers and a determined prosecutor of governmental corruption. Candidate fratricide led to another embarrassing DPP defeat in southern Taiwan's Nantou County, where incumbent County Commissioner Lin Tsung-nan dropped out of the DPP and ran as an independent against the party's official candidate. This split the pan-green vote, handing victory to the KMT.
Taken as a whole, the results have grievously wounded the DPP's two leading hopefuls for the next presidential elections in March 2008 -- Mr. Su and Premier Frank Hsieh. Both accepted responsibility for the party's defeat and offered to resign Saturday night, although their resignations have not been accepted. The DPP has no other candidates waiting in the wings with the charisma to defeat the KMT's Mr. Ma. He is sure to see the election as a mandate to press ahead with his party's policies of rapprochement with Beijing and is likely to spend the next two years forming a national consensus on China policy in preparation for his presidential campaign.
Anxious to avoid offending Beijing, there is now little prospect that the KMT's legislative caucus will end its opposition to any significant new defense spending, including the long-awaited funding for the package of defensive weapons first offered by the Bush administration more than four years ago.
All this raises some disturbing possibilities which now need to be seriously considered by policymakers in Washington. Would a Taiwan under Mr. Ma's leadership take rapprochement with Beijing so far that America would be unable to continue its security relationship with Taipei? What are the consequences of Asia's most dynamic and vibrant democracy -- and America's 10th largest export market -- moving increasingly into China's orbit? Above all, U.S. policymakers need to ask whether a Beijing-oriented Taiwan would be the first step toward a Beijing-oriented Asia.
Mr. Tkacik, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, is now senior research fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Asia Wall Street Journal