A widening gap

Protests in Hong Kong and support from the US seem to have hardened attitudes in Taiwan, where voters have overwhelmingly backed a leader who raises a determined fist against the People’s Republic of China. As Duncan Bartlett reports, the election went peacefully but raises tension in East Asia

Taiwan’s newly re-elected president Tsai Ing-wen has shown great determination to keep the island as autonomous as possible from the Chinese mainland.

This position clearly resonated with the majority of voters, as the scale of her victory in the January election was unprecedented. She gained 57 per cent of the vote, a record since presidential elections began in 1996. Her party also held on to a majority in parliament, although this was reduced.

A rival party, the Kuomintang (KMT), led by Han Kuo-yu, took a more friendly and pragmatic view towards relations with the mainland. It was soundly defeated.

Peaceful process

Despite the ideological differences, the debates between the candidates were conducted in good spirits. In the closing days of campaigning, the main parties held large peaceful rallies in Taipei. The election passed smoothly, without any indications of coercion or corruption.

‘The whole process was very open, transparent, amicable and efficient,’ Taiwan’s representative in London, David Li, told Asian Affairs.

Taiwan is an island with around 23 million residents – something of a minnow beside the Chinese whale. But it has been emboldened in recent years by its links with the United States. Several bills have been passed in Washington, designed to bolster business and security links between America and Taiwan, including the Taiwan Travel Act.

US response

America’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to the election result by sending Ms Tsai a message of congratulation, saying that Taiwan’s democratic system, free market economy and civil society mark it out as ‘a model for the Indo-Pacific region and a force for good in the world’.

‘The United States thanks President Tsai for her leadership in developing a strong partnership with the United States and applauds her commitment to maintaining cross-Strait stability in the face of unrelenting pressure,’ Secretary Pompeo said in a statement.

Bills have been passed in Washington, designed to bolster business and security links between America and Taiwan

The People’s Republic of China acknowledged that the Taiwanese election was at least in part a referendum on the state of play between Beijing and Washington, especially as it took place in the context of the US-China trade war.

Chiu Yi, a politician from the defeated Kuomintang, believes that the US sees Taiwan as one of its key tools to curb the development of the Chinese mainland.

‘After Tsai Ing-wen took power, she intentionally kept a close relationship with the US, taking pride in being an American chess piece. Taiwan has played a very important strategic role in Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, so Washington’s scheme and the Tsai administration’s manipulations are obvious,’ Chiu Yi told CGTN.

Hong Kong connection

Another issue on the minds of many voters in Taiwan was the situation in Hong Kong, which has been racked by months of protests, focused on the issue of governance from the Chinese mainland. Many young Hong Kongers are angry at what they see as the undermining of democracy and the erosion of their city’s autonomy.

Last November saw a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates during Hong Kong’s district council elections, after residents turned out in record numbers.

Lai I-Chung, the president of the Prospect Foundation think tank in Taipei, regards Hong Kong as a ‘wake-up call’.

‘What’s happening to these youngsters is resonating with the youth in Taiwan,’ he said of the protest movement, which has received support from Taiwanese activists and church leaders, if not the government. ‘This is not something abstract,’ he told the New York Times.

TRIUMPH IN TAIWAN: President Tsai Ing-wen
TRIUMPH IN TAIWAN: President Tsai Ing-wen

Richard McGregor, a China expert at the Lowy Institute in Australia, says the tension in Hong Kong and the resurgence of anti-PRC feeling in Taiwan are both indications of widespread resentment at the idea of ‘one country, two systems’.

‘China is going to pursue its end by whatever means, because Taiwan is an absolutist issue and President Xi Jinping is an absolutist leader,’ Mr McGregor told the Financial Times.

The Chinese dream

President Xi has clearly expressed his vision for Taiwan. At the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress in 2017, he said that the reunification of China is a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

What could Beijing now do to pursue its long-term aspiration? The huge military presence on the coast of the mainland is a reminder that the People’s Liberation Army could be given an order to ‘liberate’ the island by force. Yet this would immediately trigger international outrage and create catastrophic disruption to President Xi’s goal of realising the Chinese dream through peaceful means.

Economic lure

Zhang Shun from the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says that leaves a softer option, focused on business and economics. Indeed, Beijing has consistently promoted the economic benefits of peaceful cross-Strait relations.

‘The Chinese mainland now takes up 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports and Taiwan’s trade surplus with the mainland every year reaches over 100 billion US dollars. So there are real benefits for Taiwan in keeping a cordial economic relationship with mainland China,’ Zhang Shun told CGTN.

Yet the election result in January suggests that neither the lure of more business nor the threat of attack has persuaded the majority of inhabitants of Taiwan to accept a closer connection with the mainland. Instead, the pressure and threats from the Chinese side appear to have backfired, creating further strain.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs

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