What Tsai’s re-election in Taiwan means for Australia

Given the landslide election victory of President Tsai Ing-wen, and the likelihood that Beijing will intensify tactics to isolate Taiwan and pressure its government, Australia should consider stepping up its support for Taiwan’s de facto independent status in the interests of cross-strait stability and regional security.

Of central importance are the manner of the election wins and the emphatic show of support by the Taiwanese electorate for Tsai and the policies of her Democratic Progressive Party. For the Chinese party-state, an equivocal result would have offered more convincing justification for its belief that, despite a ‘temporary counter-current’, Taiwan was on a path to unification. Such an outcome would also have created fresh opportunities for the Chinese Communist Party to exploit political and social divisions by cultivating links with the business and religious communities and with specific figures in Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang.

Instead, the result was a demonstration of political unanimity by the people of Taiwan. It made visible what has been obvious to close observers for decades—that Taiwan is not moving towards unification with the People’s Republic of China. At the most fundamental level, the election results demonstrate Taiwan’s political sovereignty through the practice of democracy.

How Tsai will use her strong mandate to manoeuvre between the pressure points likely to be applied by Beijing will matter a great deal for the region, and for Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy. That’s especially so if China intensifies its pressure on Taiwan.

The hardening of party policies under CCP Chairman Xi Jinping—notably, his rejection of the degree of pragmatism and flexibility of his predecessor Hu Jintao—and the US determination to counter Beijing’s regional ambitions increase Taiwan’s vulnerability.

The CCP’s leaders strongly believe that unification with Taiwan is the expression, in its distinctive Marxist sense, of the inevitable trajectory of history towards national rejuvenation and the realisation of socialism in the ‘New China’. For Beijing, that involves a non-negotiable offer to Taiwan of unification under the one country, two systems formula as a stage towards that ultimate goal.

So foundational are these beliefs to the party that any rethink of policy on Taiwan is highly unlikely. Beijing will continue its tactics of diplomatic isolation, military threats, economic inducements and domestic interference.

Canberra has no capacity to initiate systemic change or ideological reform in the PRC and it has pragmatically pursued a relationship with Taiwan over a range of trade, cultural and security links that is overshadowed by Canberra’s much larger relationship with Beijing. This was demonstrated, for example, when negotiations on a free trade agreement with Taiwan stalled in the face of Beijing’s objections.

However, the election shows that Australia needs to take seriously the gap between Taiwan’s aspiration for a democratic political future and the destiny envisioned for it by the CCP.

While avoiding a cross-strait military conflict must always be Australia’s goal, the opposite of war is not ‘peaceful reunification’. The election result highlights the reality that it’s impossible for Taiwan to become part of the PRC without destabilising the region, the Taiwan Strait, and ultimately China itself.

So, in the interests of peace and security, Australia must help limit Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation by using high-level contacts; opposing Beijing’s military threats; strengthening economic, cultural and education links; and collaborating on shared threats to democratic practices.

The number of visits to Taiwan by properly briefed politicians and officials should be increased. Canberra should also work actively with state and local governments to support contact with Taiwan and build policy capacity at all levels.

Australia’s Pacific step-up is an important avenue for collaboration. Despite Taipei’s shrinking number of allies, Taiwan is a long-term Pacific actor with a substantial footprint in the region. It offers Canberra opportunities to partner in developing quality infrastructure and governance.

Beyond the immediate region, both Taiwan and Australia have met Beijing’s sharp power and foreign influence operations in their domestic policymaking and have shared experiences of cyber threats identified as originating in the PRC.

In an era of borderless challenges such as climate change and the unfolding coronavirus crisis, Australia’s interests will be best served by an active and high-level relationship with Taiwan that modulates concern for Beijing’s sensitivities.

Despite these drivers of policy, Taiwan remains a significant challenge for Australia. The prospect that a US military defence of Taiwan could involve an Australian military commitment remains in the background of Australia’s policy calculus. That’s complicated by the extent to which the US has become a less reliable partner in the region. A second term for Donald Trump seems likely, but even if the administration changes, the positions of all of the Democratic contenders point to an inward-looking US government without a clear vision of global power.

Under these evolving conditions, Australia’s policy towards Taiwan needs to be grounded in a proper understanding of the histories and politics of both China and Taiwan and a willingness to identify specific instances when the traditional strong emphasis on trade with China, and on the US alliance, doesn’t serve Australia’s national interests.

In her post-election comments to the international community, Tsai said Taiwan should be seen as ‘a partner, not an issue’. Australia doesn’t take sides in the democratic choices of the Taiwanese people, but it can recognise them in a values-based foreign policy, as prescribed in the 2017 white paper. To maintain Australia’s own security and prosperity, we would do well to take seriously the opportunity offered by a closer bilateral partnership and find ways to realise it.