Democracy, Taiwan and an uncertain future

The landslide election win in Taiwan could threaten peaceful relations with China

Amrita Jash

Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia

16 February 2016

The win for the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s election could see a significant shift in relations with China, Amrita Jash writes.

The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) landslide win in January’s Taiwan 2016 Presidential and Legislative elections has set a new threshold in cross-Strait relations. DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s victory over the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Party’s Eric Chu is expected to change the existing status quo between Beijing and Taipei.

After the stability in Beijing-Taipei relations under KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou’s pro-China policy, the relationship is likely to undergo a paradigm shift under Tsai’s pro-independence policies. Most importantly, the win for democracy in Taiwan poses a threat to Beijing’s longstanding dream of reunification – increasing uncertainty in cross-Strait relations.

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has always included Taiwan in its overall strategy. In August 1993 the Chinese government issued a White Paper titled ‘The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China’ which clearly stated that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China” and that the Chinese government’s basic position on settlement of the Taiwan question is based on the key principle of “peaceful reunification; one country, two systems” and that “self- determination” for Taiwan is “out of the question.”

Beijing’s strong sovereignty stakes on Taiwan runs in contrast to the consolidation of the DPP-led pro-democratic force in Taiwan, which asserts a separate identity from China. Seen in this light, Tsai’s victory is more symbolic and significant against the Communist Party-led authority in Beijing. It shows that Taiwan’s democratic spirit has failed to succumb to Beijing’s economic goodwill policy towards Taipei to achieve its political goal of reunification. Rather, the victory of a pro-democratic force in Taiwan shows the rising strength of Taipei’s self-identity and the rise of nationalism in Taiwan. There is an assertive Taiwanese identity which got diluted under KMT’s leaning towards China.

The DPP’s victory in Taiwan gives pause for thought. The outcome of the 2016 Taiwan elections runs in strong opposition to Beijing’s national interest, and could reverse the thaw in Cross-Strait relations. Though maintaining the status-quo remains in the best interest of both China and Taiwan, speculation as to a possible shift in relations is mounting, given the change in the political matrix. Given the DPP’s pro-independence stand, Beijing-Taipei relations will see new kinds of uncertainties – politically, socially, economically, and in security-related aspects. Uncertainties in Cross-Strait relations are likely to become evident in the following areas.

More on this: China and Taiwan meeting was a moment for history, but whose history?

First, with a democratic government in Taipei, the primary challenge will be aimed at the 1992 consensus on the ‘One China Policy’. The DPP’s official position sees Taiwan as “independent and sovereign” and believes in a referendum to vote for any kind of change to Taiwan’s sovereign status – in direct contrast to Beijing’s claims and directly challenging Beijing’s ‘core interest’ in Taiwan.

Second, the social implications will be felt in the widening gap in identities. That is, distinguishing Taiwanese from that of Chinese  – adding a new dimension to the tensions. This will also enforce Taiwan’s nationalism that aims to distinguish itself from China, and assert a Taiwanese  identity over Chinese.

Third, Taiwan’s pro-China policy will be replaced by an independent DPP policy that runs in opposition to China’s policy. Taiwan’s economic dependency on Beijing and vice-versa is likely to see shifts in terms of diversification of Taiwan’s economic interests in order to assert its pro-independence strategy. The primary goal of the new DPP-led government is Taiwan’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which might face risk if Taipei’s relations with Beijing deteriorate. Bilateral economic relations between Taiwan and China are further complicated given Taiwan’s significant exposure to China, which counts for 40 per cent of exports, and makes up 70 per cent of GDP. To meet the challenge of overcapacity, Taiwan might opt for new economic partners – affecting the existing economic equation between Beijing and Taipei.

Finally, Taiwan’s democratic approach will strengthen its relations with the United States and Japan. This Taipei-Tokyo-Washington nexus can act as a strong counterbalancing force against China’s growing power. Beijing’s hardline approach to Taiwan could intensify to the point where the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis could be revisited. China’s use of force against any independence move from Taiwan could become a real and grave concern.

How the cross-Strait relations will be played out with a democratic political force in Taiwan is a real concern. Taiwan is China’s Achilles heel, despite its rising power. Any challenge to its sovereignty over Taiwan directly impinges on China’s national interest and, most importantly, its national identity. The crux lies in the way the Beijing-Taipei equation will play out.

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