By Eric Vandenbroeck
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election by a historic landslide on Saturday, a decisive result widely seen as a rebuke to Beijing’s efforts to gain control over the island democracy.
Since 2016, Beijing has stepped up its diplomatic isolation of Taiwan. Since Tsai took office, Taipei has lost seven (see chart below) diplomatic partners. Only 15 small countries currently have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, Taiwan maintains informal relations and bilateral partnerships with countries around the world. The United States, for example, is Tapei's most important strategic partner.
Remaining vigilant, in her victory speech, Tsai told China to abandon its threat to take back the island by force, and that: "Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation."
Beijing instead considers the Chinese-speaking democracy to be a renegade province of China. Ever since Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949, Beijing has clamored for unification with the self-governing island, by force if necessary, and pushed it to adopt the "one China, two systems" self-rule arrangement it employs in Hong Kong and. Tsai’s victory highlighted how successfully her campaign had tapped into an electorate that is increasingly wary of China’s intentions.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang was quick to reiterate that no matter what happens in Taiwan, the fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change, said the spokesperson. The China Morning Post wrote that Taiwan may face retaliation and tactics that could include military intimidation or trying to convince Taipei’s remaining 17 diplomatic allies to switch their ties to Beijing.
This whereby supporters of Tsai 's stance argue that Taiwan can live with losing small diplomatic allies, many of them dependent on foreign aid and investment, as long as it strengthens unofficial ties with major democratic powers, like the U.S. and Japan.
It also should be noticed that the Taiwanese economy is intertwined with China, hence, contrary to younger voters, many of the older people who voted for Tsay rather prefer no major changes to the present status quo.
Jonathan Sullivan, a Taiwan expert at the University of Nottingham, said that “In general terms, neither side wants a confrontation over Taiwan, and certainly the US is thankful that Tsai has not rocked the boat, a careful posture I expect her to continue,” he said. “The wild card is Beijing, which has painted itself into a corner with regards to Taiwan. There just isn’t room for them to concede the bit of space Tsai needs to start talking again.”
Taking a different approach Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted that Tsai’s big win could prompt Beijing to change its strategy. “Chinese policies are not succeeding in promoting closer ties, and Tsai’s landslide victory may cause China to rethink its approach,” she said.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen's last night's landslide victory in elections will extend her term by four years, setting the island nation on a course for an extended period of cross-strait tensions with mainland China if, as expected, Beijing maintains its hardline approach to her administration. Tsai's ruling party also captured a majority in Taiwan's 113-member parliament. The strength of her victory raises questions about how China will choose to deal with her administration while strengthening U.S. options for countering Chinese influence. The Chinese government could now be forced to rethink its completely restrictive policies to take into account the rise of more radical pro-independence factions inside the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and a long-term shift in Taiwan’s political landscape.
Why it matters
Tsai secured more than 8 million votes among some 14 million Taiwanese voters, a record margin of victory since direct presidential elections began in 1996, and outpaced her main challenger, Han Kuo-yu from Kuomintang, by 2.5 million votes. Concurrently, the DPP is also set to retain its majority in the 113-member Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, even though it lost control of seven more seats than it currently has. The opposition Kuomintang gained three more than its previous total. Minor parties that play a third force in the island’s traditionally bipartisan political landscape made some limited strides in these elections. Turnout also reached a record high of 74.9 percent, reflecting high political awareness among the electorate. In light of her party's slightly less impressive legislative performance than in past elections, Tsai's landslide win indicated that her approach to relations with Beijing was popular enough to overcome discontent among the electorate over some of the DPP’s domestic policies. Against the backdrop of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests and perceived political interference from Beijing, the result reveals growing resistance among Taiwan's residents to Chinese influence, a feeling only set to grow stronger as the island's younger generation rises.
The larger context
For one there no single iteration of the ‘One China Principle’, but a series of different versions and refinements. In essence, all subsequent versions grew from the rapprochement between the US and the PRC in the 1970s, and were created from the need for there to be a policy framework of sorts in a place where America could develop its new links with Beijing, but maintain what it felt were its responsibilities to the ROC. An uncharitable interpretation of this would be that ‘One China’ was the US’s way of trying to salve its conscience and walk away from an alliance with Taiwan, while still being able to say it had done the right thing. In many ways, therefore, it was America, rather than the PRC, that asked for the policy to be stated the way it is, and that to this day lives with the consequences.
As explained earlier, after the end of WWII, the Communist Party of China (CPC) under Mao Zedong pursued a fierce battle against his archrival Chiang Kai-shek, chief of the Kuomintang (KMT) party. Chiang lost and took refuge on the island of Taiwan. For some time after that, Taiwan was the center of propaganda from both sides. The CPC wanted to "liberate" Taiwan, while Kuomintang wanted to "recapture the mainland." Successive Chinese leaders have made unification a top foreign policy goal.
Starting in the 1990s, Taiwan’s democratization and its growing political and cultural distance from the mainland made China’s objective harder and harder to achieve. Beijing’s efforts to pull Taiwan closer into its orbit, including by meddling in the island’s elections, have met with limited success.
In fact while the effect of Beijing’s influence operations on the campaign was difficult to measure, it certainly was there, for example in 2008, the pro-Beijing chairman of Want Want China Holdings purchased one of Taiwan’s largest media groups, the China Times Media Group. The group was Taiwan’s fourth-biggest media conglomerate and consisted of three daily newspapers, three magazines, three TV channels, and eight news websites. In a company newsletter, the new owner said he would “use the power of the press to advance relations between China and Taiwan.” He has also publicly endorsed Taiwan’s unification with China.
Taiwan’s officials and media watchdogs were also reporting a deluge of disinformation on social media apps and websites. Often, as the analyst J. Michael Cole has observed, the messages seem intended not only to boost candidates but to amplify social divisions and sow confusion and doubt about the state of Taiwan’s economy and the performance of its government including put pressure on smaller nations to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
This should not denigrate the immense strategic importance of the Taiwanese islands. They sit in one of the world’s great seaways, a place which, as the economies of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and then China and Hong Kong have grown around them, has become increasingly important.
The earliest inhabitants of this space were not Chinese. They originated from elsewhere, part of the Austronesian group that now has populations in the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and embraces the Maori population as far afield as New Zealand.
Until the first significant settlements in the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1367– 1644) of those from the Mainland, historic Formosa was dominated by the ancestors from this Austronesian group. After the migrations from Ming China, the destiny and identity of the island gradually changed. But that doesn’t alter the fact that its involvement in the history of the Mainland is a recent phenomenon. There was no Tang Taiwan in the 7th to the 10th century, or Song or Yuan Taiwan from the 10th to the 14th, key dynasties on the Mainland. Even for the Ming and Qing, Taiwan's history is complicated and does not follow a neat linear thread.
In an address marking the 108th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, on October 10, Taiwan’s now re-elected President Tsai Ing-wen denounced China for its efforts to force Taiwan into unification talks under the “one country, two systems” model. She said the framework is failing Hong Kong, and that the protection of Taiwan’s sovereignty is not provocation, but her responsibility. Conspicuously missing from the celebration also was the history of the Republic of China, a title used by the island’s authorities since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist, or Kuomintang, forces retreated to the island in 1949 and set up an interim government following their defeat in the civil war. What next with Taiwan.
Child of the Westphalian Treaty from the European 17th century, while the notion of statehood has undergone modification under post-modernity, in Asia the idea is alive and well and sits at the root or the cross-Strait issue. In Chinese pasts, there were, as alluded to before, very different notions of what it was to be a political entity, leading to ideas of suzerainty and the notion of ‘all under heaven’ with its tributary system. These have left a memory trace which continues to create issues today, in places like Tibet. There was no neat sovereign entity called China until very recent history. Nor was there a place with a firm idea of what its international status was, and what its set borders or rules-based diplomatic relations might be. Under a similarly flexible system, perhaps the Taiwanese issue would have been long solved.
For the Taiwanese, Hong Kong stands as a stark warning that the vague promises of Beijing and the grand informal structures it might promise to put in place, should any reunification deal be discussed, are undercut by a hard political reality which can never be expressed but will always be there. This is that Beijing always has the final say.
With Tsai's party having won Beijing may be forced to consider moderating its current hard-line stance in order to insulate the more radical wings in Taipei. The need for foreign investment, as well as the desire to maintain Taiwan's economic reliance, may also compel Beijing to create new incentives to draw in more Taiwanese business to the mainland.
But China will firmly protect its territorial integrity and opposes any separatist attempts and Taiwan independence, its Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman said on Saturday, after the re-election victory of the self-ruled island's leader Tsai Ing-wen.
And as a commentator for the Singaporean New Straights Times wrote: Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to continue with his current policy and even tighten it.
Pressuring Tsai also serves to demonstrate Beijing’s consistency and determination to maintain political cohesion and ideological resolve, especially in times of external pressure, much owing to the paranoia that China could follow in the footsteps of the Soviet collapse.
Thus Beijing is still most likely to maintain or even double down on its hardline policies against Taipei. This, of course, will come at the risk of escalating tensions with the island and could even create a Hong Kong-like confrontation. Thus future cross-strait relations will be intertwined closely with the context of China's economic slowdown and intensifying competition with the United States, as well as the rise of Taiwan's nationalistic sentiment.
Taiwan’s status thus seems to offer almost intractable quandaries and problems. ‘One China’ which has to exist as two remains a conundrum that once anyone attends to it becomes simply insoluble because it doesn’t make sense.
Taiwanese journalist Yang Chien-Hao said that in general people in Taiwan are not too worried about the mainland’s possible military invasion of the island as the cost for Beijing to do so would be very high if the United States, or even Japan, intervened. Yang said that since Tsai took office in 2016, a lot of overseas Taiwanese businessmen had returned to Taiwan as they were not afraid of worsening cross-strait relations.
Since its transition to full democracy beginning in the 1980s, Taiwan indeed has increasingly asserted its independent identity from China even though it is not recognized by the United Nations and only by a fraction of its members. And while many cultural traditions of the Chinese mainland are still alive and well preserved, Taiwanese society has evolved into its own society. Thus there is sufficient evidence that Taiwan can be considered an independent state.
But not only is Taiwan a proxy for much of the world’s strategy to deal with the consequences of an increasingly authoritarian China Taiwan is also trying to manage its economic relations with China.
The fact that Taiwan offers an alternative model of Chinese modernity is one that carries deep challenges, and often real threats to Beijing. That is the trouble with Taiwan. And, through the immense importance of this region for the rest of the world, that is why this problem is not just a local, but a global one.