Cross-strait ties are likely to get far more frosty, with serious implications for the security dynamic in East Asia, after Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in Taiwan’s presidential election.
In many ways, Saturday’s was a historic election. Nearly 75 percent of the 19.31 million eligible voters cast their ballot, with Tsai bagging over 57 percent of the vote. Her nearest rival, the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu, could only manage 38.6 percent of the vote. Also elected were 113 new members to Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan. Tsai’s pro-independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost seven seats in the legislature but managed to retain its majority, winning 61. The KMT, on the other hand, gained three seats, increasing its 2016 tally to 38.
While it is foolhardy to attribute the outcome of any election to a single issue, pre-election polling showed that Taiwan’s relationship with China was on top of voters’ minds. Perhaps, the clearest example of this was the DPP’s final commercial, which was released on the eve of the election. It juxtaposed the police crackdown in Hong Kong with Taiwan’s democracy and urged people to vote to protect sovereignty.
China views Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified. This, for it, is a core interest that is fundamental to Xi Jinping’s larger objective of national rejuvenation. For Beijing, cross-strait ties must be premised on what it terms as the 1992 Consensus, which underscores the centrality of the One-China principle. The DPP and Tsai reject the 1992 Consensus and emphasise Taiwan’s sovereignty. Han and the KMT, meanwhile, seek deeper ties with China.
In fact, in November 2015, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, then president of Taiwan, had famously met with Xi in Singapore. During the meeting, Ma had emphasised the need for consolidation of 1992 consensus, maintenance of peace and enhanced institutional engagement.
In the months that followed, Tsai’s DPP triumphed in the presidential race and took control of the legislature. Beijing responded with a pressure campaign. Soon after Tsai took charge, the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office suspended a cross-strait communication mechanism. That was followed by restrictions on tourism, targeting of multinational corporations identifying Taiwan as a country and intensification of Taiwan’s international isolation. During Tsai’s first term, Beijing drew away seven states into its orbit, leaving Taiwan with just 15 diplomatic allies.
Additionally, in a January 2019 speech, Xi made it clear that China was willing to use force if needed to achieve the “historic task” of “reunification.” This was followed by intensification of naval drills, capped off in 2019 by China’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, sailing through the Taiwan Strait a week after it entered service.
Responding to such pressure, Tsai sought greater support from Washington, while expanding defense spending. In July 2019, the US approved the sale of 108 M1A2 Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles, valued at $2.2 billion. A month later, Donald Trump announced the sale of 66 F-16Vs in an $8 billion deal. Amid reports of expanding cyber threats, Washington and Taipei enhanced cooperation on cybersecurity. In addition, Tsai’s government passed an Anti-Infiltration Law, which plugs loopholes related to election interference linked to political donations, misinformation and campaign events. This was critical amid growing concerns over corruption scandals and misinformation campaigns. For instance, late last year, two Taiwanese politicians were charged with accepting money from China for their campaigns. There are also increasing reports of Beijing using its financial clout to fund favorable media coverage and influence social media discourse.
On the economic front, Tsai announced the New Southbound Policy, which sought to focus on Taiwan’s ties with South and Southeast Asian countries. Official data show that the policy has yielded results, at least in terms of expanding trade, investment and tourism exchanges. Although China continues to remain Taiwan’s most important economic partner, and this fact cannot be wished away, the NSP has allowed Tsai some wriggle room in mitigating attempts at economic coercion.
Saturday’s election verdict shows that Beijing’s pressure campaign hasn’t yielded the desired outcome. More importantly, over the past year, public polling in Taiwan shows that there is a growing nationalistic sentiment and appetite for independence. At the same time, Xi’s handling of the Hong Kong protests has deeply undermined the already limited appeal of the One Country Two Systems formula.
The question to consider going forward is whether Beijing will reorient its approach and seek talks with Tsai or will it double-down with greater intent. The latter, unfortunately, appears far more likely.
The author is a fellow of China Studies at The Takshashila Institution