Taiwan Politics in a Furor

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's approval rating has fallen to an abysmal 9.2 percent in the wake of his failed attempt earlier this month to oust the island's second most powerful politician, Legislative speaker and Kuomintang Legislator-at-Large Wang Jin-pyng, for alleged influence-peddling. With Taiwan's lawmakers and the public siding decisively with Wang, the Ma government is now weaker than ever and with two more years of lame-duck governance in the cards.

In addition to roiling Taiwanese politics, the dispute looks likely to stall China's quest for closer economic integration across the Taiwan Strait with a highly favorable services pact, the failure of which can be expected to harm Taiwan's interests more than China's.

The story began on Sept. 11, while Wang was away attending his daughter's wedding on a remote Malaysian island. Ma, himself a former Justice Minister and a figure swept to the presidency on his promise to wipe out corruption, revealed that Wang had been lawfully wiretapped while helping to prevent an appeal against his buddy, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus whip Ker Chien-ming, who was recently ruled not guilty in an embezzlement case.

An obviously angry Ma withdrew Wang's KMT membership, thus effectively ending the job of speaker Wang has held since 1999, sacked Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu for his apparent complicity and ranted that the incident was "the most shameful day in the development of Taiwan's democracy," adding that Wang's influence-peddling amounted "to the most serious infringement" of the judiciary's independence.

It seemed like a good riddance at first, but when the uber-power broker Wang returned to Taiwan a few days later, he went straight to a Taipei court. Setting the stage for a KMT donnybrook, the court quickly invalidated the revocation of Wang's KMT membership rights, effectively enabling him to stay on the speaker job until he has exhausted his legal action for reinstatement. As political analysts have pointed out, this process could well take a year or two.

Everybody against Ma

The Taiwanese public doesn't care much about Wang making the island once again look utterly corrupt and a place that investors should stay away from. Instead, they turned on the already deeply unpopular Ma. Most feel that Ma, not Wang, was abusing judicial independence to get rid of his long-time intra-party rival. That is based on the impression that Ma won leadership of the KMT in 2005 by defeating Wang and the party's old guard. In recent months, the legislative speaker has increasingly been at odds with the president over highly-controversial legislative bills crucial to the Ma government, such as the service trade agreement with China or a proposed referendum on nuclear power. There also is speculation that Ma, by trying to oust Wang, is fighting a KMT old-guard conspiracy wanting to replace Ma with Wang as the KMT chairman.

At least as precarious for Ma as the public disapproval, seemingly all legislative wings are siding with Wang, not surprising given that he has brought back-scratching to such perfection. But Ma's handling of the well-liked figure has also divided the KMT. Ma is mainland-born and represents Taiwan's north, while Wang is Taiwan-born and comes from the south. And local KMT officials and KMT lawmakers alike fear that closeness to the ever-weaker Ma will ruin their own electoral prospects.

In China's eyes, the developments can only resemble a horrific déjà vu going back to 2000 when KMT heavyweight James Soong left the party to run as an independent, splitting the KMT vote in that year's presidential elections. What resulted was a worst-case scenario for China, the eight-year presidency of Chen Shui-bian, then the leader off the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chinese reaction to Chen's pro-independence policies had the Taiwan Strait constantly on the brink of war.

"Beijing is uncomfortable with this," said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. "Wang getting into trouble or being removed from the speakership wouldn't worry them on its own, but the splitting of the KMT is one factor they have to consider," He added that although Wang, who is 72, may not be as ambitious as James Soong, the episode will be used to the full by the DPP, and a dragged-out outcome would bleed the KMT.

"Ma's failure to remove Wang and come on top quickly will be seen as weakness on Ma's part, and this will also be poorly received in Beijing", Tsang said. "[Chinese] President Xi Jinping would prefer to press on with the next step in cross-Strait relations, but a weak president in Ma will not allow that to happen."

In terms of cross-strait relations, the collateral damage from the Wang issue will be the enormous complication of the Taiwan-China service trade agreement signed earlier this year. The legislative bill for the pact, under which Taiwan would open 64 service items to Chinese investment, and China would allow Taiwanese investment in 80, was originally scheduled to pass Taiwan's legislature in the previous session, but didn't owing to fierce opposition, combined with Speaker Wang's unwillingness to push it through.

The bill was then planned for action within the current session, but the spat between the Ma administration and the lawmakers makes this unpromising for the time being. And as the end of the year draws closer, it will become clearer that the agreement will be delayed until after the Lunar New Year holiday. And after that, the electoral run-up to the important 2014 local elections will be just about to kick off. The KMT already expects to take a serious beating in those polls, so that the Ma government would certainly not want the service trade agreement pop up. In short, Beijing understands that the pact's implementation is now delayed until the twelfth of never. Such an outcome has implications for China's confidence in President Xi's cross-strait approach, as on their side, the service trade pact is seen as a generous gift to Taiwan, given the huge potential of China's still-underdeveloped service sector on the one hand and the perception that Taiwan's own has nothing to offer on the other.

Still, Beijing can be assured that the devil is not as black as he is painted, according to John F Copper, a Taiwan expert and professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Copper believes that observers and pundits have often made too much of Beijing worrying or getting upset about what happens in Taiwan "because it sounds exciting and sells well."

According to Copper, there is a bunch of reasons why the Wang issue won't derail the cross-strait train. "First, there is serious internal dissent in the KMT, but this should not be called a split or something leading to that," he said.

Second, Copper argued that Beijing could deal with the DPP returning to power anyway, as DPP leaders realize they cannot win an election based on rallying voters against China because Taiwan is now too dependent on commercial relations with China. "The January 2010 China-ASEAN common market deal almost ensures Taiwan will be economically isolated if it doesn't get along with China," Copper said. "Growth in Taiwan's gross national product will be reduced if it frightens off Chinese tourists or cuts trade and investment ties."

He concluded that the services pact is accordingly not seen by the leadership in Beijing as something that will seriously disturb relations with Taiwan.

"It can be postponed and dealt with later. They are patient," Copper said.