On Jan. 11, voters in Taiwan overwhelmingly re-elected independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen to a second term in what was seen as a rebuke to mainland China’s attempts to assert greater control over the self-ruled island of 23 million people.
It was a stunning turnaround for Tsai, who had been lagging behind her Beijing-friendly rival in the polls until the unrest in Hong Kong scrambled the political dynamics. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also retained control of the Legislative Yuan, or parliament, sending a strong message to Beijing not to interfere in the island’s domestic affairs.
Whether China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province that it could take by force, gets that message remains to be seen, but Tsai insists her people have spoken.
“Democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation,” Tsai declared at a post-election rally, making a direct reference to alleged disinformation and coercion campaigns orchestrated by Beijing ahead of the election. In her acceptance speech, Tsai asserted that her party’s win carried “added significance” by demonstrating that “when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back.”
Throughout the campaign, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party pointed to China’s crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong as a harbinger of what could happen to Taiwan if it did not resist Beijing’s advances. “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” became a popular mantra and warning that helped the DPP mobilize a high voter turnout, especially among the youth, and overcome the party’s more accommodationist rival, the Kuomintang (KMT), and its once-popular candidate, Han Kuo-yu.
In November 2018, Han surprised observers by becoming the first KMT politician to be elected mayor of Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold. The victory sparked predictions that the outspoken populist mayor would go on to win the presidential race.
In recent months, however, Han was dogged by allegations of covert Chinese support, and his warnings that hostility toward Beijing would hurt Taiwan economically rang hollow in the wake of relative prosperity and low unemployment on the island. But it was his pledge to restore closer relations with the mainland, against the backdrop of Chinese suppression in Hong Kong, that sealed his fate.
Tsai hammered her opponent on Hong Kong every chance she could. At her victory party, black Hong Kong democracy flags could be seen flying the slogan, “Free Hong Kong – Revolution Now,” a testament both to the international significance of the DPP’s win and to the challenge it presents China. Beijing’s reaction to Tsai’s win has alternated between indifference, with state-run media dismissing her victory as a “fluke”; recriminations against the West for supposedly colluding with Tsai; threats of military force; and a strident refusal to budge on its “one country, two systems” policy.
Likewise, Tsai is adamant that Taiwan will not change its course. In remarks addressing Taiwan’s relationship with its giant neighbor, she reaffirmed her commitment to peaceful coexistence but rejected China’s “one country, two systems” governance model and insisted that Taiwanese sovereignty was non-negotiable.
“Today, I want to once again call upon the Beijing authorities to remind them that peace, parity, democracy and dialogue are the key to positive cross-strait interactions and long-term stable development,” Tsai said.
She explained that “peace” meant China must abandon the option of military force against Taiwan. “Parity” meant Beijing must accept Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty. “Democracy” meant that decisions about Taiwan’s future must rest solely with its 23 million inhabitants. And “dialogue” meant that representatives from both Beijing and Taipei must be able to sit down together and discuss the future of their relationship, something China has so far refused to do.
Instead, Beijing has relied on an array of pressure tactics since Tsai came to power in 2016. It has tried to squeeze the island economically (for instance, by barring Chinese tourists from traveling there alone); intimidate it with shows of military force; and isolate it diplomatically (Taiwan is now only officially recognized by 15 small states) — all in an effort to tarnish Tsai’s administration.
Against this backdrop of Chinese pressure, months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and a long-term trade war between China and the United States, the Taiwanese election was widely viewed as a test of Beijing’s international clout and the viability, if not legitimacy, of its “one country, two systems” governance model. While that model was created with Taiwan in mind, it has only been implemented in Hong Kong and Macau. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have been primarily driven by China’s perceived failure to honor the terms of that “two systems” agreement, which was meant to guarantee Hong Kong certain democratic and economic rights for 50 years after the former British colony’s reunification with China in 1997.
Following the historic Taiwanese election, the island’s chief representative to the United States, Stanley Kao, joined scholars and U.S. officials at the Heritage Foundation to discuss what the results of the election might mean. In a short address to attendees, Kao, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), the island’s de facto embassy in the U.S., said the election proved that the 23 million people of Taiwan were “holding course” and “standing strong” against the “800-pound colossus, distant cousin across the street.”
Moreover, Kao declared that the landslide DPP win reaffirmed that “democracy works, and works well” in a Chinese society, and that human rights and freedom of speech are not just “Western” values. But, Kao cautioned, “[We] never take democracy or Taiwan’s success for granted.” American support, he said, particularly that of Congress and the administration, is vital to Taiwan’s democratic future and to stability in the region.
Other speakers at the Heritage forum echoed this sentiment. Heritage Asian Studies Center Director Walter Lohman suggested that the DPP win made clear that China needed to take “a new approach” to its relationship with Taiwan and that the moment offered a unique opportunity for the U.S. to move forward with a bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan — something Beijing adamantly opposes. “That should be our number-one priority,” Lohman argued, emphasizing Taiwan’s importance as a democratic partner in the region that shares American economic and political values.
Keynote speaker Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, suggested that “China has much to lose by trying to tie Taiwan to the mainland,” just as it has attempted to do with Hong Kong.
“You see it in what has happened in Hong Kong,” Yoho said of the chaos and violence there over the last six months. “Now, companies want to divest from China…. You hear people talk about ‘ABC’ — manufacture ‘anywhere but China.’”
The congressman predicted that, in the wake of Tsai’s re-election and her commitment to democracy and reform, more nations would engage in diplomacy with the island and more international businesses would seek to expand there.
Yoho’s predictions may be a stretch, however, given China’s enormous economic clout, which it has recently wielded to punish businesses like Apple and even the NBA that speak out against Chinese authoritarianism.
Nevertheless, Yoho, who said he would continue to press for dual recognition of both China and Taiwan in Congress, insisted that Chinese President Xi Jinping can “save face by changing policies.”
“In the 21st century, we don’t need to conquer nations. We need to expand engagement and expand trade,” he said.
However, Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that Xi would never accept Tsai’s preconditions for dialogue, “especially the idea of parity between both sides.”
At the same time, she said “the Chinese are unlikely to conclude that this is the time for military force. The risks are too high. They could face a massive insurgency in Taiwan … and people would fight for their sovereignty.”
Glaser pointed to the ongoing, often violent protests in Hong Kong as an example of what the Chinese could be up against with Taiwan. While most scholars agree that China is likely to take a tougher stance toward Taiwan following the election, Glaser argued that Xi has not discounted the possibility of peaceful cross-strait relations.
“China believes that the peaceful development of cross-strait relations is the right path. That’s the policy that Xi has inherited from his predecessors,” she said. “But the tactics have gotten tougher.”
The big question, according to Glaser, is whether this policy of strained, but nonviolent, relations is “just a placeholder” for the time being or a more permanent policy. She cited a speech Xi gave over a year ago in which he insisted that unification must be the goal of any discussions about the future of Taiwan and that China could use force if Taiwan ever attempted to formally declare independence.
“President Tsai won’t push for independence, and China probably understands this,” Glaser said. Instead, China is likely to “ratchet up the pressure” on Taiwan. She suggested this could be done by “going after” the 15 small nations with which Taiwan still has formal diplomatic ties, increasing Chinese naval incursions into the Taiwan Straits, and attempting to undermine Taiwan’s economy with moves like last year’s freezing of Chinese tourist visas to the island.
On the whole, Glaser said she is “pessimistic” that Beijing will enact any significant policy changes toward Taiwan because the island’s status is so closely tied to the legitimacy of Xi and the Communist Party at home.
She suggested that, among the things to watch going forward, were the rising power of the youth vote in Taiwan — polls show more young people in Taiwan favoring independence — and the emergence of third political parties that could offer Beijing more options in its attempt to influence domestic politics on the island.
The forum’s remaining two panelists, Robert Sutter, professor of international affairs at The George Washington University, and Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a nonprofit research think tank focused on American interests in the Indo-Pacific, both addressed what Taiwan’s election means for U.S.-Taiwanese relations.
Sutter suggested that Tsai’s re-election almost guarantees the continuity, if not expansion of, the positive relations in recent years.
“We’ve never seen a period like this, the most positive period in U.S.-Taiwan relations,” Sutter said. Referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s congratulatory message to Tsai, Sutter said that today, the State Department “is in the forefront of pushing for new rhetoric and public support for Taiwan.”
Sutter cited four reasons for renewed U.S. engagement with the island, including ongoing Chinese political pressure on Taiwan, Taiwan’s importance for U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, its status as a Chinese-speaking democracy with a free market economy, and the role Taiwan can play in U.S. foreign policy as a “check” on China.
“The result is we have a more active relationship with Taiwan. There’s not so much concern about upsetting Beijing as under previous [U.S.] governments,” he said.
“The relationship will just get stronger going forward,” Sutter predicted, as the U.S. and Taiwan continue to work together on important defense and economic issues. The uncertainties, he said, largely have to do with domestic U.S. politics, particularly the 2020 presidential election, and with how far the administration is willing to go to accommodate Beijing in an effort to resolve President Trump’s trade war with China.
Sutter noted that “a lot of think tanks are talking about the danger of the current situation increasing the rivalry between the U.S. and China,” but he says that China has tried to avoid conflict with the U.S. in the past, and he believes this policy will continue.
Stokes took a much stronger stance in support of Taiwan, arguing that the U.S. needed to realign its policy toward the island by accepting the “objective reality” that Taiwan is a de facto independent nation.
“Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant liberal democracy,” he said. “You could argue that Taiwan has more legitimacy [than China] because of popular sovereignty.”
“We give legitimacy to the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] every day,” he pointed out, arguing that the same should be true for a more natural partner like Taiwan.
Since 1979, when it formally switched ties from Taiwan to China, the U.S. has abided by an ambiguously worded “One China” policy, whereby it recognizes that the People’s Republic of China is “the sole legal government of China,” but only acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, without explicitly agreeing to it — leaving the dispute for the two sides to work out. Thus, the United States has been able to maintain formal relations with China and unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Stokes suggested that the U.S. could develop a new joint statement or diplomatic communiqué with Taiwan that “allows us to align policy and communicate to our constituencies.” He noted that U.S. relations with Beijing began with the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972 and led to full recognition of the country seven years later. He also said that Congress should set up new committees to strengthen ties with Taiwan.
“Taiwan is already independent,” Stokes argued. “This should inform U.S. policy.”
Given the range of views on the complex dynamics among the U.S., China, and Taiwan, it is impossible to know with certainty what everyone’s next moves might be. What is certain — and what was reiterated at the Heritage forum — is that Taiwan will continue to be a strategic player in the relationship and rivalry between the U.S. and China. What’s more, Tsai’s resounding win suggests that neither side can take the island and its 23 million inhabitants for granted.
About the Author
Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.