Since their debut in 1996, Taiwan’s presidential elections have been a showdown between the self-ruled island’s independence-leaning camp and those favouring unification with China. Cary Huang specially for the South China Morning Post.
There will be no exception this time as incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen faces off with Han Kuo-yu, the popular mayor of Kaohsiung, in January 2020, when legislative elections will also take place. The presidential races offer choices that divide the electorate along multiple lines – idealism or reality, confrontation or compromise, politics or economics. They pit mainland migrants against Taiwan natives, the old against the young, among the island’s 23 million people.
Unlike in other democracies where local issues largely determine the outcome, Taiwan’s polls are often more about relations with the world’s two major powers – China and the United States – as the island relies on America for its security and on the mainland for business. But this time, the debate carries extra weight because of a series of developments under the presidencies of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Tsai.
There have long been ups and downs in the triangle of relations between Washington, Beijing and Taipei. Currently US-China ties are at their lowest point since former US president Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking trip to the Middle Kingdom in 1972. Mainland-Taiwan relations are the worst since the two sides began semi-official contact in the mid-1990s. However, the relationship between America and Taiwan is at its strongest since Jimmy Carter ended official US-Taiwan contact in 1979.
Since he came to office in 2017, Trump has seemingly shifted away from Washington’s decades-old policy of “engagement” with Beijing to one of “containment”, in reaction to what the US sees as a fast-rising and increasingly assertive communist power under Xi’s stewardship. American and Chinese officials have both steadily ramped up their tough rhetoric amid a spiralling tariff war between the two nations.
Meanwhile, Trump has substantively upgraded relations with Taiwan, seeing the strategic partnership between the two democracies as helpful to core US interests in terms of values, economy and security, as well as Chinese containment.
Xi has stepped up pressure on Taiwan since Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power in 2016. Beijing has cut off communications, ratcheted up military intimidation, poached several of the island’s dwindling number of diplomatic allies and ramped up economic pressure. In a landmark speech in January, Xi reiterated that Beijing would use all necessary means, including force, to achieve national reunification. In reaction, Tsai squarely rejected Xi’s threats.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s high-profile US visits keep Taiwan in spotlight and send message to Beijing
The recent mass protests in Hong Kong against elements of growing Chinese control over the former British colony will have a profound impact on Taiwan’s 2020 elections, as the unrest constitutes the most severe challenge to Beijing’s rule since the city returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The demonstrations were originally triggered by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. But they have evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reform, universal suffrage and a halt to what many residents see as sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.
The implementation of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” governing formula has been carefully watched by Taiwan as an indicator of how the island might fare in a similar situation. A survey in January found about 80 per cent of Taiwan’s residents opposed unification. Recent polls have suggested Tsai has become more popular due to her rejection of Xi’s call for unification and her support for the Hong Kong protests.
Tsai and the DPP suffered a crushing defeat in last year’s local elections largely due to a flagging economy and unpopular domestic policies. Despite successes in her efforts to diversify the economy away from China, Tsai faces dire challenges.
Han, who represents the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), is China’s preferred candidate as he apparently recognises the cherished “1992 consensus” – an understanding that there is only “one China” but each side has its own interpretation of what the phrase constitutes.
Han won a resounding victory in last year’s mayoral elections largely on an economic improvement platform. In March, during a visit to four mainland cities, he met several Chinese officials, including Liu Jieyi, the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, a cabinet-level body that sets Beijing’s Taiwan policy. His close China links are both his greatest strength and vulnerability, as they could help boost the local economy but may hurt relations with the US. His pro-Beijing stance may raise suspicion among voters about his determination to safeguard self-rule and Taiwan’s democratic system.
More importantly, the upcoming elections will for the first time become a proxy battleground for the US and China, as the choice between the two powers will dominate debate. Washington and Beijing have long shared one thing in common on their policy towards Taipei, which is that they both see maintaining stability across the Taiwan Strait as the priority. With this in mind, they have traditionally both shared their preference on election candidates early on in the campaigns.
The administration of Barack Obama publicly expressed displeasure with Tsai’s pro-independence stance in 2012, which may have contributed to her defeat at the hands of KMT incumbent Ma Ying-jeou, as Washington was fearful of damaging relations with China at that time.
The US and the KMT have been close allies since World War II, but the Trump administration may now see the DPP as a more reliable friend and partner in their strategy to contain Beijing. Washington apparently now favours Tsai – the US administration’s approval of her high-profile transit through American cities for her visit to four Caribbean allies this month is evidence of that.
Against precedent, the US allowed her to attend public meetings with the media and meet United Nations representatives from Taiwanese allies. This was no doubt aimed at boosting Tsai’s chances of winning a second four-year term, as Washington sees the Cornell University-educated politician as the defender of Taiwan’s young and hard-earned democracy. Trump may see a DPP-led Taiwan as a crucial ally in America’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.
Will Taiwan choose China or choose the world? Its next presidential election will determine its future
Meanwhile, Beijing sees Han, the child of a mainland migrant, as its main hope of improving cross-strait ties amid rising independence sentiment on the island.
The 2020 elections will be a stress test of the complicated triangle of ties that has managed to keep the peace since China’s civil war ended 70 years ago.
Cary Huang is a veteran China affairs columnist, having written on the topic since the early 1990s