The stinging defeat suffered by Taiwan’s ruling party in the island’s in Nov. 29 elections answered a question that had arisen in Atlanta weeks earlier.

On. Nov. 12, Georgia Institute of Technology international affairs Professor John Garver wondered whether Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s ongoing economic overtures to China had brought the island too close to the mainland in the eyes of voters. 

By ousting Mr. Ma’s Kuomintang party in municipal elections, including in key cities like Taichung and the capital, Taipei, they answered with an unequivocal “Yes.” Where Taiwan goes from here, however, is open to debate. 

“It is amazing how far and how fast Ma has been able to go” with measures to warm up relations with China after a frigid period under his predecessor, the now-jailed Chen Shui-bian, Dr. Garver said during the discussion organized by Global Atlanta at the law offices of Morris, Manning & Martin LLP, which also sponsored the event. 

Mr. Chen, the Democratic Progressive Party president from 2000-08, advocated for recognition of Taiwanese independence during his two terms, rankling China and putting American officials on edge over the prospect of a cross-strait confrontation.

Not only did Mr. Ma smooth this over after coming into office, but he also pushed for stronger economic links with China, launching a trade agreement that opened up direct flights and exchanges in tourism, education and a variety of industrial sectors, Dr. Garver said. 

Taiwan hosted more than 3 million mainland visitors last year, boosting the island’s economy while furthering its “soft-power” goals. KMT officials interviewed by Global Atlanta during a trip to Taiwan in June said they saw the island as a “small tugboat leading a giant ship into harbor,” a reference to Taiwan’s role as the first ethnic Chinese democracy and its desired influence on the mainland’s political trajectory. 

But the argument for closer ties is more economic than ideological. Without integrating more closely with China, Taiwan fears it will be left out of regional trade deals. Already, the island feels isolated as Asian commercial centers like Singapore and Hong Kong move ahead and South Korea courts closer ties with China. 

Dr. Garver noted that along with the rest of Asia, Taiwan is having to reckon with China as a superpower in the making that is growing more assertive and less susceptible to democratic entreaties.

While he didn’t address in detail the Occupy Central pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – watched closely by Taiwan – Dr. Garver said that Mr. Ma is having to negotiate this new reality in the face of discontent at home. Many Taiwanese, especially those students who occupied the legislature in March, are angry over stagnant wages and stubborn unemployment even during a time of decent GDP growth. Much of the problem is that while companies are doing relatively well, their manufacturing is taking place outside the country, in China and increasingly in Southeast Asian countries. 

Also speaking at the Global Atlanta event, Huei-yuan Steven Tai, director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Atlanta, highlighted the island’s fears of being isolated economically. While free-trade pacts with Singapore and New Zealand were signed under Mr. Ma, only 10 percent of Taiwan’s total $575 billion in foreign trade is covered by such deals, he said. 

Some of the 40-plus event attendees wondered whether China would be more likely to challenge the status quo and push toward confrontation, especially given the expected election victories by the DPP. They also asked why Taiwan hadn’t become more of a gateway for foreign companies into mainland China. 

But Tim Tingkang Xia, head of the Morris, Manning & Martin’s international practice, had nothing but positive things to say about the business environment in Taiwan, home to major computer brands like Acer and Asus, as well as smartphone maker HTC.

Dr. Xia, who has landed shepherded some high-profile intellectual property cases involving clients from mainland China, also claims Taiwanese bicycle maker Giant Group, plastics firm General Plastics and display manufacturer HannStar as clients. The firm has also benefited from Taiwan’s diaspora, as 10 of its associates either hail from Taiwan directly or have ancestry there. 

Global Atlanta convened the event to bring together experts while providing a recap of a reporter’s trip to Taiwan in June to cover trade issues. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...