Taiwan's unprecedented woes are the result of the "identity politics" that have gripped the island since the 2000 democratic transfer of power to a young political force with a relatively small following.
Taiwan's identity crisis started with China's abandoning the island by ceding it to Japan in 1895 and the birth of Taiwan Independence Movementat the beginning of the last century. Today it is reflected in the island's China-averse defense, economic, cultural and social policies.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which celebrated its 20th birthday last September, has been doing everything it can to hold on to power while its politicians are busy resorting to anti-China rhetoric, ethnic divisive tactics and smear campaigns against their rivals to secure posts in the government and seats in the parliament or local councils. "Chinese pigs", "anti-Taiwan saboteurs" and "Taiwan Yes, China No" are standard slogans in elections against competitors from the opposition Kuomintang, the People First Party and the New Party. They call themselves the only "true Taiwanese" whose love for Taiwan is real.
Remember, candidate Chen Shui-bian campaigned as a "newborn centrist," no longer a Taiwan independence advocate, and pledged to open direct transport links with the mainland his priority task once elected. After winning 39 percent of the votes against a split rival camp, he even appointed a mainlander, the defense minister of the former KMT government, his first premier, who was sacked after four months.
From then on, centrism was no more. Independence fundamentalism became the call of the day. Although playing identity politics has helped the DPP succeed in persuading some people to identify themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese as in the past; and enabled the DPP to become the biggest party in the parliament, it still does not have a majority edge, even counting in seats of its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union. Its influence in local governments has been dwindling due to overplaying the identity game.
Endless political upheavals, economic stagnation and social division haunt the people. Taiwan-based foreign business groups, including the American Chamber of Commerce and the European Chamber of Commerce, have expressed doubt about it.
Relations with the mainland are getting tense; Taiwan has become a flashpoint and a troublemaker in the eyes of the world. War is a constant worry for all.
Identity politics have also caused increasing mistrust from allies, particularly the U.S., Japan and Singapore. Years back, when they were ready to conclude FTAswith Taiwan, the Chen-DPP government insisted on signing them under the name "Taiwan," instead of "Chinese Taipei" after the WTO formula. They turned away and refused to resume negotiations.
Without an FTA with Singapore, which is Taiwan's pipeline to the ASEAN countries, the island is excluded from the region's integrated trade alliance. Taiwan's economy is thus marginalized, isolated and weakened.
Fortunately, this trend may have a chance to be reversed as the parliamentary and presidential elections are only 11 months and 14 months away, respectively. DPP politicians will have to stress their pro-independence credentials to get party nomination, but they must embrace aspirations of the centrist voters to win. The majority of people are fed up with identity politics.
A clear identity is desirable, but not so if it provokes neighbors, undermines interests of allies and increases the danger of a regional war.