Neither Independence nor Unification

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Engaging with Beijing Under Ma, Taiwan enjoys its coziest relations with China since the civil war

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In his first four-year term, Ma, 61, forged a slew of reciprocal commercial agreements with the mainland. (China is now Taiwan's biggest trading partner and investment destination.) Academic and cultural exchanges have become common, and thousands of Chinese tourists visit Taiwan daily. Relations today between Taipei and Beijing are the coziest since 1949, the year the KMT lost to the Chinese Communist Party in a civil war on the mainland and retreated, with hundreds of thousands of refugees in tow, to Taiwan. Ma, Beijing and Washington all want the current peace to keep. Ma believes that in a globalized world, no economy can be an island. Engagement with China "carries risk," he told me, but "it's in Taiwan's interest."

Tsai, 55, demurs. She says she is willing to do business with China — on Taiwan's terms. She thinks Ma has given away too much to an authoritarian state. "We [should] treat China as a normal trading and economic partner," Tsai told me. "A lot of people are concerned that we are moving so close and so quickly to China that we would at some point pass the point of no return, meaning the only option is to be with China in the future rather than being on our own." That sounds perfectly reasonable. But because the DPP advocates de jure independence for Taiwan (an extreme red flag to China), many interested parties — most notably Beijing and Washington — worry about a Tsai victory. One scenario: a return to the cross-strait cold war witnessed during the DPP's eight years in office before Ma's election in 2008. It's clear to all that China and the U.S., which seldom agree on much, both prefer Ma over Tsai — Beijing because it sees him as friendlier, Washington because it doesn't want to be caught in the middle of any new quarrel between Taiwan and China if Tsai wins.

The planet's two strongest nations don't have a vote, however, and neither Ma nor Tsai can impose their will on Taiwan. The decider is the island's electorate. Under Ma, Taiwan has been politically stable and its economy resilient amid the downturn in the West. Yet polls have Tsai right on Ma's heels if margins of error are taken into account, meaning that her stances resonate with a substantial proportion of voters. Whoever they choose will determine the course of cross-strait relations for at least the next four years. Beijing has to understand and accept that it must deal not just with one or two political figures in Taiwan but also with the values and aspirations of 23 million people. That's democracy. That's the power of freedom.

Given that Taiwan is its own political, economic, military and cultural master, it's surreal, and somewhat tragic, that such a discrete and open society cannot be a normal nation. While much of the blame lies, of course, with Beijing — which, through its clout, blocks any meaningful overseas role for Taipei — much is also Taiwan's own doing. Two polar illusions, rooted in misguided hope, have governed the island: that Taiwan will win back the mainland and unify the two as a noncommunist state (the KMT's raison d'être) and that Taiwan will be formally recognized as an independent country (the DPP's cause). For too long, Taiwan has been defined by the struggle for one or the other. But now there's a growing realization that both unification and independence are impossible dreams, so much so that you don't hear those words mentioned in Taiwan anywhere as often as before.

What should Taiwan be? Neither Ma nor Tsai can resolve the island's existential problem. In fact, they reinforce it. Still, they do Taiwan proud. Both are informed, confident, articulate (in English too), well educated (he has a doctorate from Harvard, she from the London School of Economics), well traveled, passionate about making a difference and genuinely concerned about the future of their land — traits any electorate would want in its leaders. Too bad one of them has to lose. But whatever happens, as the freest place in the Chinese world, Taiwan wins.

— with reporting by Natalie Tso / Taipei

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