Taiwan is never out of news. Taiwan-China ties is now a part of popular folklore with Beijing expressing its resolve a number of times to integrate the island nation with the mainland by all means and if necessary by the use of force and Taiwan defying the might of China’s growing military muscle. The political pendulum in Taiwan has swung between parties which are fiercely independent and those which take a softer stance towards Beijing. The latest in this narrative is the resounding landslide victory by the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when elections were held on January 11. The landslide victory that the voters delivered is also a stunning rebuke of Beijing’s campaign to isolate the self-ruled island, handing over its first female leader a second term. It was only in November 2019 that Tsai’s DPP suffered a huge defeat in Taiwan’s local elections but the political pendulum swung quickly in her favour, with the political resurgence ensuring her victory and another term at the helm to carve out a course for Taiwan’ future.
Tsai’s victory would surely infuriate China. Soon after her victory, Tsai told the cheering crowd: “Today we have defended our democracy and freedom, tomorrow let us stand united to overcome all challenges and difficulties”. Tsai secured 57 percent of the popular vote with a record-breaking 8.2 million ballots, 1.3 million more than her 2016 victory. Her main rival Han Kuo-yu, from the China-friendly Kuomintang, racked up 39 per cent and conceded defeat. The DPP managed to retain its majority in the island’s unicameral parliament with 61 out of 113 seats, while the KMT took 38 seats. The result is a blow for Beijing, which views Taiwan as part of China and has made no secret of wanting to see Tsai turfed out.
Over the last four years, Beijing had ramped up economic, military and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island, hoping it would scare voters into supporting Tsai’s opposition. But the strong arm tactics backfired and voters flocked to Tsai’s DPP, fuelled in part by China’s hard-line response to months of huge and violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The US, the main backer of Taiwan and bound by the Taiwan Relations Act and therefore main military ally, rejoiced Tsai’s re-election as it felt that it would contribute to maintaining cross-Strait stability.
What is that came in Tsai’s favour that led to her victory? She pitched herself as a defender of liberal democratic values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by China under President Xi Jinping. As said, Beijing has vowed to one day retake the island, by force if necessary and loathed Tsai because she refuses to acknowledge the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”. Though Tsai is committed to dialogue with Beijing and wants peace, she is not shy to urge Beijing to halt its sabre-rattling towards Taiwan. She expects that Beijing respects the idea that only the island’s 23 million inhabitants can decide its future.
There is yet another angle to Taiwan-China relationship. As with many other Asian countries, China has successfully increased Taiwan’s dependence on it economically making the latter as its largest trading partner, thereby increasing Taiwan’s vulnerability. Beijing lost no time in reacting that it continues to stand by its policy of opposing any form of Taiwanese independence and its spillitist attempts and that it “uphold(s) the basic principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ and ‘one country, two systems’ and the one-China principle.”
Taiwan’s election results showed that Beijing’s carrot and stick policy utterly failed. This was the second major electoral setback for Beijing in recent weeks. In November, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide win over pro-Beijing parties in district elections as the city convulses with months of anti-government protests. Tsai’s landslide victory was indeed a slap in the face to Beijing as Taiwanese voters rejected to its intimidation. In the coming months it is to be seen if Beijing’s hardline position towards Tsai shall continue or if Beijing adopts a more ‘soft sell’ approach that is more carrot and less stick from now on. That is unlikely to happen, though.
For record, Beijing hoped that it could replicate the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” in Taiwan with the hope that it can apply the same model on Taiwan if the island ever came to be controlled by Beijing. But as the election outcome demonstrated Taiwanese voters are wary of such a proposal.
What is indeed Tsai’s doctrine? As can be discerned from her address on May 20, 2016 after her victory for the first time as President, her international policy vision clearly intended to drive the country away from its reliance on China and toward the rest of the world. In her speech, Tsai articulated Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which implied that Taiwan shall engage with South and Southeast Asian states and share its expertise and democratic values with an international community.
Beijing has successfully worked for Taiwan’s isolation by economic doles to countries that maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving only 15 countries now with diplomatic ties from the 22 nations that had diplomatic relations with Taipei when Tsai became President in 2016. Between 2016 and now Beijing successfully campaigned to poach Taipei’s allies and pressured international organizations and corporations to exclude Taiwan, from the World Health Assembly to Marriott and American Airlines. Owing to China’s pressure, the United Nations, which does not recognize Taiwan, has stopped allowing Republic of China passport holders into its New York headquarters.
The DPP does not recognize the so-called “1992 consensus” considered by Beijing to be indispensable for cross-strait exchanges. While Beijing interprets the consensus as the self-governing island and the mainland as part of a single Chinese nation, Tsai refuses to acknowledge it as the “consensus” limits Taiwan’s international space and severs the official cross-strait communications that had thrived under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Tsai has successfully rebuffed the Chinese pressure and bolstered Taiwan’s international presence. Her New Southbound Policy received a boost from the US-China trade war. She realised that by befriending the US, she can garner global support so that she can keep a hostile Beijing at bay and preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty. Thus, Tsai hoped that Taiwan can present itself as a more humane, democratic alternative at the international stage.
From its part, Taiwan has worked hard to retain its remaining diplomatic allies despite Beijing’s attempts to woo them away from Taiwan to China. For example, in May 2018, Taiwan agreed to assist Haiti in securing a $150 million infrastructure loan from Taiwanese banks. Also in May 2019, Taiwan agreed to extend a $100 million loan to Nicaragua and its embattled President Daniel Ortega. Though both Haiti and Nicaragua are serial rights violators, both states are among Taipei’s 15 remaining formal allies. Though the deal is still active, Nicaragua has not yet received its loan as Taiwan has not found a domestic bank to transfer the funds due to fears of US sanctions.
Though Tsai has spoken of creating an ‘Alliance of Democratic Values’ to stand in opposition to an increasingly overbearing China, some of her diplomatic moves are questionable. This is because Tsai has “rewarded” rights violators like Nicaragua, Haiti, and eSwatini, an absolute monarchy and one of the world’s least free states. King Mswati III rules all branches of national government, and critics of the king are subject to imprisonment. In 2018, the king received an honorary degree from a Taipei university, where Tsai thanked eSwatini “for speaking up for Taiwan and always being by our side.” Such conduct on the part of Tsai can have few supporters. While continuing her fight to keep Taiwan’s remaining allies, Tsai might toy with the idea of replacing Republic of China (ROC) with a “Republic of Taiwan” in preparation to a future declaration of Taiwan independence. Beijing has warned that any such move could trigger a use of force against Taiwan.
Instead, it could be more desirable if Tsai continues to pursue her New Southbound Policy, seen as deepening Taiwan’s ties with other Asian states and as a way to build more sustainable ties so that Taiwan could survive as a peaceful nation without worrying much about pressure from China. The New Southbound Policy has won praise for assisting Taiwanese businesses in China in returning to Taiwan. These companies have benefited from government incentives and for relocating to Southeast Asian states. Coming in the wake of the ongoing US-China trade dispute, the initiative announced in 2016 has motivated Taiwanese companies to leave China and avoid high export tariffs. With her re-election, Tsai is expected to continue with her engagement with neighbouring countries and drive Taiwan’s foreign policy and trade away from the cross-strait paradigm. What probably is lacking or weak is to inject the new dimension of ethics-based foreign policy in Tsai’s narrative.
A lot was at stake for Tsai when she sought a second term. And, now with her win, the global impact of the result is going to be huge. Taiwan has played a key role in the global supply chain as a high-tech manufacturer, mostly notably as an Apple Inc supplier. Its strategic location just off the coast of China and on the edge of the Pacific is equally important. Taiwan is also a potential military flashpoint between the US and China as the former sells arms and provides other assistance to Taiwan. The island nation also lies on major shipping lanes between Southeast Asia and US allies Japan and South Korea, and on the disputed South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands and air bases. Taiwan is also close to a major US military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.
Leading democratic nations honour Taiwan’s democratic credentials despite not maintaining official diplomatic ties. It is therefore for this reason when Tsai says it is up to Taiwan, not China, to decide the island’s future, and warns of the Chinese threat to democracy and liberty, the world listens. It was also a reason why her main opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party, which ruled China until 1949 when forced to flee to Taiwan after losing a civil war, lost as he favoured close ties with China and believed that it was the only way to ensure Taiwan’s security and prosperity. His double-speak was that he also claimed to defend the island’s freedom and democracy.
Though China was closely watching the elections and expected a Han victory, the people of Taiwan thought otherwise in reposing faith with Tsai. What China is likely to do now is that it would further ratchet pressure on Taiwan, perhaps even by conducting military drills close to the island to intimidate. China needs to be mindful that a conflict would hugely damage both China and Taiwan that it can ill afford. The real test/danger would come if Tsai declares formal independence and term Republic of Taiwan and if so, if Beijing would use force to reclaim the island as mandated by its 2005 law authorising the use of force against Taiwan if China judges it to have seceded.
Positions of the US and China
As expected, the US rejoiced in Tsai’s victory, hailing it as a demonstration of the island’s “robust democratic system”. Although the US has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with means to defend itself. The US State Department issued a statement, saying that “under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people”.
The US saw the election results as a blow to China. Though it did not take any open position, it expressed concern at Chinese efforts at intimidation and influence. When Beijing successfully wooed some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central America and the Pacific, the Trump administration was dismayed, which is why it approved billions in new arms sales to Taiwan so that it can defend its sovereignty when needed. The US is concerned that Beijing has been trying assiduously to wean away Taiwan’s remaining allies, trying to see that they stick with Taipei and not give Beijing further foothold.
Even when the US-China trade stand-off continues and elections in Taiwan over, the US transited one of its warships through the Taiwan Strait, a move that irked Beijing. The passage of the USS Shiloh guided-missile cruiser through the narrow waterway, separating the island from the Chinese mainland, was announced by the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense and confirmed by the US Seventh Fleet as a “routine visit”, demonstrating the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Interestingly, the development came a day after President Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sealed a “phase one” trade deal as part of a broader bid to reduce trade tensions that have stirred up global markets for more than a year. The deal, however, is unlikely to resolve persisting and much wider strategic tensions between the US and an increasingly powerful China.
Though Beijing did not react on the passage of the US warship through the Taiwan Strait, it said that it does not oppose “normal passage” of foreign vessels through the strait, though it censures trips aimed at sending a geopolitical signal. Beijing is paranoid that Tsai is getting cosy with Washington, accusing the latter as the main reason for sowing rising discord between the mainland and Taiwan. Beijing is further dismayed that diplomats from Britain and Japan congratulated Tai on her re-election.
Writing in Japan Forward, Robert Eldridge says that like the US, Japan should have its own Taiwan Relations Act. The administration of Abe Shinzo is openly cozy with the Tsai administration. He and his brother Nobuo Kishi are known to be highly pro-Taiwan. There have been a variety of formal and informal interactions between the two countries. In March 2017, Senior Vice Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama travelled to Taipei for one day to promote tourism. He was the most senior Japanese official to visit Taiwan in 45 years. In response to criticism from China, Abe later responded that Taiwan is “an important partner that shares Japan’s values and interests.” In addition, Keisuke Suzuki, the director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s youth division and a member of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso’s faction, visited Taiwan. He again visited Taiwan to attend a Taiwan-US-Japan security-related conference at which he argued for a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
Japan, which chose diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan, has no such TRA governing its relations with Taiwan, despite the historic, geographic, and socially close ties it has with Taiwan. However, while the US passed the TRA in a matter of weeks, Japan has been unable to do it over the course of decades.
Reactions in Hong Kong
Expectedly, Hong Kong protestors feted landslide election win for Tsai. They saw this as a fillip to their movement that puts pressure on China. The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises it would be granted a high degree of autonomy and eventual universal suffrage. But China’s tightening grip on the city and Beijing’s failure to live up to its promises have fed the unrest. This is one of the biggest popular challenges to the ruling Communist Party since the return.
There is a growing opinion within the DPP that Taiwan owes Hong Kong more concrete support. The election outcome demonstrates that it is a proof that Xi Jinping’s strategy of keeping Hong Kong and Taiwan under control is a total failure. The 23 million people of Taiwan are not willing to give up their sovereignty and subject to the authoritarian control of the Chinese leadership.
Taiwan was part of Japan for 50 years before being handed back to the 1911 regime, and has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor has it formed part of the People’s Republic of China. Tsai argues that the erosion of democratic progress and civil liberties in Hong Kong under China’s “one country, two systems” means that Taiwan should never take Beijing seriously when it talks about “unification.” Taipei expects Beijing should respect the popular will of the Taiwanese people as reflected in the election outcome. Viewed from all perspectives, Tsai’s re-election could prove to be a fundamental turning point for Taiwan. This does not mean to suggest that Beijing would soften its stance any time soon as Beijing made it clear that its position would not change even if Tsai is re-elected. China is committed to promoting “one country, two systems” for Taiwan, a model under which Beijing runs Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy. Tsai has openly rejected such a system. Given the divergence of positions by both sides, the future is full of complexities with no ready answer in sight.