TAIPEI, Taiwan — Washington has been lavishing attention on Taiwan, stepping up official visits and saying it will likely allow visa-free travel to the U.S. The moves are raising suspicions that America is trying to influence a tight presidential election here in January.
President Ma Ying-jeou has seized on Washington's favors, touting them as reasons voters should re-elect him. The Taipei Times, which supports his main opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, said in an editorial: "Foolhardy or malicious, inadvertent or by design, the U.S. has taken sides in next month's elections."
The U.S. denies doing so, but Tamkang University political scientist Edward Chen said the timing of the visa announcement just a few weeks before the Jan. 14 poll "carried political connotations."
While the U.S. has influenced Taiwan's politics since it stationed military forces on the island during the Cold War, Washington has generally kept aloof in presidential elections.
The de facto American embassy in Taipei said that Washington remains neutral this time too, wanting to see a free and fair vote in one of Asia's most dynamic democracies. "The United States does not interfere in foreign elections," said Sheila Paskman, spokeswoman at the American Institute in Taiwan. "And that includes Taiwan's."
Whether or not Washington intended to boost Ma, its recent moves have reinforced perceptions that the U.S. sees its interests better served by him.
Ma has made his signature policy the tying of Taiwan's high-tech economy ever closer to China's lucrative markets. Beijing, which claims the island as its own, has been delighted, muting past threats of military force.
The result has been to ease tensions across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait to their lowest level since China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. That reduces the chances that the U.S. would be embroiled in a conflict at a time when it is trying to repair its economy, steady relations with Beijing and re-engage in East Asia after a decade of preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan.
By contrast, Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party supports formal independence from China, as opposed to the de facto independence Taiwan has now. Her predecessor as party leader, Chen Shui-bian, frequently angered Beijing — and gave America fits — when he was president from 2000-2008. Though Tsai has backed away from his brinksmanship with China, she has never publicly renounced independence.
There is "no doubt in my mind that Washington would be more comfortable with a Ma win," international relations specialist Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in an email. "One of the traditional and overwrought fears in D.C. is that a DPP administration will come in and 'make trouble.'"
Polls show a very tight race. Though Ma holds a slight edge, a surge by third-party candidate James Soong — a former member of Ma's Nationalist Party — would likely take more votes away from Ma than Tsai.
Ma has campaigned as the candidate most capable of building ties with China without sacrificing Taiwan's close links with the United States, still its most important partner 33 years after Washington transferred its recognition from Taipei to Beijing as the government of China.
The U.S. is legally obligated to provide Taiwan with weapons to defend itself against a possible Chinese attack and maintains a large commercial presence on the island, with $20 billion in investments.
With many Taiwanese visiting the U.S. frequently, visa-free travel would be a popular move. After the American Institute announced that the program could begin soon if a U.S. investigation finds no problems with Taiwan's security procedures, Ma called it "a major diplomatic breakthrough" that raises Taiwan-U.S. relations to their highest point in 30 years.
Earlier this month the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the deputy energy secretary made visits to Taiwan that were heavily publicized by the American Institute. Such visits have been rare in recent years, to prevent China from charging that Washington is reneging on its recognition of Beijing.
Tsai and her campaign have minimized criticism, fearing that a tiff with Washington would cost her votes. She traveled to Washington in September to meet with officials and try to set them at ease about her leadership.
Amid that outreach, the Financial Times quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying that Tsai had created doubts about her ability to maintain stable China-Taiwan relations — a statement that caused a firestorm in the Taiwanese media, which saw it as evidence of U.S. meddling.
Ultimately, analysts say what's at stake is the best way for a small, democratic island to coexist with a powerful China.
"Washington is intervening quietly in Taiwan's elections," said June Teufel Dreyer, an Asia expert at the University of Miami. "What the State Department seems to want is a gradual folding of Taiwan into (China) — a bit like watching one of those protoplasmic creatures oozing around and eventually incorporating its prey. No eagle sinks talons into fish or cat grabs struggling bird, just slow integration."