The strategic implications of the Taiwanese elections

As widely expected, the Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections on 16 January produced a landslide victory for the pro-independence, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) under the leadership of Tsai Ing-Wen. The first female president in the country’s history received 56.1% of the popular vote, defeating the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) and its candidate Eric Chu by a 25-point margin—the biggest since Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996. The DPP for the first time also won an absolute majority in the legislature, securing 68 out of 113 seats, which frees the party up to pursue its legislative agenda and mandate.

The result has a couple of strategic implications. The most important is that a peaceful reunification on China’s terms is an increasingly distant prospect. To be sure, Tsai’s victory was partly due to growing voter frustration with the KMT’s handling of domestic problems which included a stagnating economy, rising labour costs and a widening income gap. However, the DPP’s decisive win also reflects increasing concerns about Taiwan’s growing dependence on China under President Ma Ying-Jeou and the perceived dangers to Taiwan’s democracy. Opinion polls prior to the election showed that a wide majority of citizens identify as ‘solely Taiwanese’ and that there’s hardly any support for reunification with the mainland.

Many voters therefore aimed to reassert their Taiwanese identity and way of life through their electoral choice. Indeed, the incompatibility between the political systems across the Taiwan Straits has grown. Taiwan’s election was the third peaceful transfer of power and ample proof of the vitality of its democratic system. Not only did Taiwan elect a female president but 38.1% of its legislators will be women, which will see the Republic of China (ROC) rank 10th in the world on the question of female parliamentary participation.

In short, the election was a milestone in Taiwan’s political system in that it has become almost structurally impossible for any ROC government to advocate for reunification, or getting closer, with the mainland. Tsai’s victory speech reflected that new reality. She refused to accept the ‘One China’ formula of the ‘1992 Consensus’ between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Instead, she vowed to ‘build a consistent, predictable, and sustainable cross-strait relationship’ based on the Republic of China’s ‘constitutional order, the results of cross-strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, and democratic principles and the will of the Taiwanese people’. Moreover, she emphasised that ‘both sides of the strait have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction that are based on dignity and reciprocity … Our democratic system, national identity, and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations’.

Thus, while it’s unlikely that Tsai will follow the example of her DPP predecessor in office, Chen Shui-bian, and engage in provocative pro-independence rhetoric, she asks Beijing to respect the ROC’s de facto independence as the basis for the future relationship.

Consequently, the big question is how China’s leadership under President Xi Jinping will react. Predictably, China’s official response reiterated its support for the 1992 Consensus and urged Taiwan to refrain from any secessionist policies that would lead to war. But what’s less clear is how Beijing will seek to manage its relations with a DPP government. Xi, who has so far taken a hard line on sovereignty issues, could seek to punish Taiwan through suspending official exchanges or through trying to diplomatically isolate it even further. Any move to coerce the new DPP leadership could set off a negative spiral in cross-Strait relations. Alternatively, he could recognise the new political realities in Taiwan and quietly work towards a mutually acceptable compromise.

It’s too early to tell which approach China will choose. But it’s likely that the cross-Strait status quo will remain tenuous. That’s also the case because in recent years Beijing has changed the cross-Strait military balance in its favour. Thus, assuming that the US won’t come to the defence of Taiwan, Xi might seek to coerce the DPP leadership into accepting its position. That could be a serious misjudgement as the US is likely to go to war in the event of an unprovoked attack on the island nation. The US State Department’s statement on the election contained a subtle warning to China but also recognised the significance of the result for Taiwan’s democratic system:

‘We congratulate the people on Taiwan for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system, which will now undergo another peaceful transition of power. We share with the Taiwan people a profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability. We look forward to working with Dr. Tsai and Taiwan’s leaders of all parties to advance our many common interests and further strengthen the unofficial relationship between the United States and the people on [sic] Taiwan.’

The last sentence indicates that the US is willing to support moves to preserve Taiwan’s strategic and political breathing space. As part of the US rebalance to Asia, Taiwan becomes more, not less important to Washington.

It’s time that Canberra puts Taipei back on the radar screen and equally considers ways to strengthen Taiwan’s political and economic position.