Taiwan’s opposition tries to claw back America’s trust

Taiwan’s struggling opposition party will do its utmost this week to convince Washington that the Kuomintang, once a wartime US ally when its former leader Chiang Kai-shek ruled China, remains a viable political force worthy of trust.

During a 12-day tour beginning Thursday, KMT Chairman Eric Chu will seek to rebuild relations with Taiwan’s most crucial security partner, which his party has neglected for years as it fights to regain its position after a series of landslide electoral defeats.

“The KMT has a problem with Washington,” said Kharis Templeman, an expert on Taiwanese politics at the Hoover Institution. “Chu is going to have to work hard to prove that the party is still relevant and would be a reliable partner for the United States if it returns to power.”

It is customary for Taiwanese presidential candidates to present themselves to American policymakers, guarantors of Taiwan’s security in the face of Chinese threats to invade the island which Beijing claims as part of its territory. Most Taiwanese believe that no politician who does not have American approval can rise to the highest office.

Tsai Ing-wen failed in her first attempt to win the presidency in 2012 after a senior Washington official expressed doubts about whether she would maintain stability in cross-Strait relations during her 2011 US tour.

But with nearly two years until the next presidential election in Taiwan, Chu’s visit is out of the ordinary.

Eric Chu speaks to the media in September 2021
Kuomintang Chairman Eric Chu will try to mend the party’s historic ties with Washington during a trip to the United States © Ceng Shou Yi/Reuters Connect

He will hold closed-door meetings with officials from President Joe Biden’s administration, members of Congress and think tanks. On June 6, Chu will deliver a speech at the Brookings Institution before dedicating a new KMT office and traveling to New York and California.

The party closed its office in Washington after winning the presidency in 2008, and the KMT representative became the government’s quasi-ambassador to the United States.

The decline of the KMT began with the 2014 Sunflower Movement against a trade in services agreement that President Ma Ying-jeou had reached with China.

The student movement reflected fears of over-reliance on China and an unequal distribution of the benefits of cross-Strait trade. Most of the young voters who came of age during this period distanced themselves from the KMT because they consider it too friendly with China.

Since then, the party has oscillated between experiments in populism and attempts to endear itself to the Chinese Communist Party. He went through eight party leaders in the process.

In 2016 he lost the presidency to Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, and in 2020 Tsai won re-election by an even larger margin.

According to a January poll by the National Chengchi University Center for Election Studies, only 17% of voters identify with the KMT, near historic lows and 12 percentage points behind the DPP.

Like voters in Taiwan, American observers question the KMT’s allegiance. Founded in China, the party continues to consider Taiwan part of the country, although KMT politicians insist that this does not correspond to the People’s Republic of China.

As attitudes in the United States have hardened against China and Beijing embarks on a campaign of pressure and intimidation against Taiwan, the KMT’s position has become even less popular at home and in the United States. Moreover, U.S. officials appreciate the cautious but firm leadership with which Tsai has resisted threats from Beijing.

Many in Washington now believe the KMT has been “completely marginalized, or worse – actively working against American interests and untrustworthy,” Templeman said, adding that those perceptions could change if the party won the local elections this year.

Alexander Huang, head of the KMT’s international department and designated representative to the United States, wants to portray the party as a badly needed pair of safe hands amid rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

“For the United States and Taiwan, our greatest interest is not to let war happen in the next few years,” he said. The United States should “allow Taiwan to have a ruling party that can say hello to Beijing.”

“It would be to pacify them, to slow down their killing intent, to control hostility. It’s good for both of us. This is the story I want to talk about when we go to America,” Huang said.

Templeman said he didn’t know “how far that argument would take them in Washington these days, but there’s no denying that a KMT administration would be more welcome by [Chinese president] Xi [Jinping]”.

“It would probably help stabilize the security environment across the strait, which would be welcomed by at least some people in the Biden administration,” he said.

However, observers believe that the party’s ties with the United States will not be easily repaired, especially since anti-American rhetoric is popular among many KMT politicians.

Huang argued that the DPP was failing to stand up to the United States. “Many Taiwanese officials compete for favor with Americans by shouting ‘yes sir’ all the time,” he said. “If America doesn’t support us, we’ll all be finished.”

“But the United States should not prefer the more obedient party.”

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