Taiwan moves away from China

An important article discusses the historic election in Taiwan to take place tomorrow, “The day after the unprecedented November summit between the leaders of China and Taiwan, the Facebook page of Tsai Ing-wen, the front-runner in the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election, was flooded with some 70,000 messages. The majority of them were written in the simplified Chinese characters used only on mainland China, and they demanded that Taiwan reunify with the rest of the country. Given that Facebook is banned in mainland China, this campaign had a rigged feel to it, another of the efforts — direct and indirect, menacing and gentle — that Beijing has made over the years to lure Taiwan back into the fold of the motherland. The willingness of Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet with his Taiwanese counterpart, President Ma Ying-jeou, was on the gentler side of the spectrum, a promise of peace and harmony if only Taiwan does not go its separate way”.

The report mentions “Taiwan’s presidential election campaign has indicated that none of the approaches to its Taiwan problem appear to be getting China to its goal. A foreign-educated, policy-wonkish former senior bureaucrat, Tsai is the candidate who embodies the notion of a separate Taiwan, and she remains so far ahead in the polls that her victory is almost a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the question isn’t so much whether the 59-year-old Tsai will win the Jan. 16 election, but whether her election will signify a failure of China’s reunification policy. In other words, whether a Tsai victory means that the one-China idea, with regards to Taiwan, is dead. Yes, Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland has not been the only thing on voters’ minds. A widening income gap, a sense of diminished opportunities for young people, and disarray in the ranks of the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) are other factors”.

Importantly it notes “the existential question for Taiwan is always whether to promote integration with the giant across the Taiwan Strait, or to keep a certain distance, and Tsai represents the option of distance. She is the nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favours ultimate independence: Its governing charter opens with a call for “the establishment of an independent sovereignty known as the Republic of Taiwan.” This does not mean that the DPP would attempt to establish such a sovereignty. But the election campaign is taking place after eight years of a tremendous joint effort, fostered by the outgoing KMT president, to persuade Taiwan of the benefits of ever closer and more elaborate ties with the mainland. Tsai’s election would represent a conviction that integration has gone too far, too fast; that Taiwan has gotten too close to the authoritarian, controlling, and often bullying giant across the strait; and that this closeness poses a danger to Taiwan’s treasured sense of de facto independence”.

This is a clear advantage for the United States. While the US should not overly antagonise China, it should be ready to use Taiwan as a sign that it is not prepared to tolerate its aggression in the South China Sea or elsewhere. One clear way of doing this is weapons sales to the island.

The closer relationship is noted when “Under Ma (who, having served two terms, cannot run for a third), China and Taiwan have signed more than 20 agreements expanding trade and investment, tourism, student exchanges, and direct flights. Trade jumped to almost $200 billion a year — from roughly $18 billion in 2000 — and China now buys some 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports. This has had a remarkable effect, exponentially multiplying contacts between the two sides while reducing the chance that Taiwan could be a flashpoint for conflict in Asia — a particular worry in Washington, because the United States would be obliged to intervene if China launched an armed strike on Taiwan”.

Yet the fact that many in Taiwan think links with China have gone too far show that greater trade links do not automatically translate into a reduction in tensions as was seen by Chinese actions on the new president’s facebook page.

The piece goes on to mention “the very speed and amplitude of this cross-strait development generated a startling backlash in Taiwan, expressed by the 2014 Sunflower Movement — when huge student-led demonstrations forced Taipei to shelve a major trade deal. The hundreds of thousands of protesters feared that the Goliath on the mainland was being given too much economic power over the Taiwanese David. “Protect Democracy: Never Give Up” read one common poster. Others depicted Ma as “Ma Zedong,” likening him to China’s Mao Zedong. His approval rating had fallen to 9 percent and stayed there”.

Interestingly the writer argues that “There is a risk here in overstating the difference between Tsai’s DPP and the KMT. In fact, on the most basic question of dealing with the mainland — independence or reunification — both parties have long observed a kind of double restraint: neither independence nor reunification, but an indefinite perpetuation of the status quo. The KMT is known as the pro-Beijing party, meaning that it opposes independence as a matter of principle, favours reunification as an eventual goal, and believes more economic integration will stave off future conflict. But the party’s leaders acknowledge that formal reunification is impossible for the foreseeable future”.

The author notes that the new president is cautious, “there’s not much radicalism or impetuosity in her curriculum vitae. She’s a graduate of Taiwan National University’s College of Law, has a master’s degree in law from Cornell, and a Ph.D., also in law, from the London School of Economics, where she wrote a dissertation on international trade law. As Time pointed out in its June profile, she was abroad during the protest movement of the late 1970s that gave birth to the DPP. Back then, Taiwan was a repressive one-party state, and many of its future leaders were bloodied and imprisoned. Tsai only joined in 2004 after a nonpartisan technocratic career in several posts. She was a KMT appointee to Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission, the island’s chief economic regulatory agency; in 2000 Chen named her to the very visible post of minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which carries out the day-to-day work of dealing with China”.

He adds “Tsai was promoted to be the head of the DPP in 2008 after a scandal badly tarnished it — the outgoing president, Chen, was imprisoned for bribery — and the party’s leaders were looking for a fresh, untainted face. She ran for mayor of Taipei in 2010 and lost, to Eric Chu, who is her KMT rival in the upcoming election. She ran for president against Ma two years later and lost again, narrowly. But Ma’s approval ratings have stayed low, and the KMT’s nominee in the upcoming election, Hung Hsiu-chu, was performing so poorly in the polls that in October the party, in a highly public gesture of desperation, ditched her in favour of Chu”.

Pointedly he notes if she does win “her election would further a trend toward permanent separation that began long before she was born. Ever since the island became a Japanese colonial possession in 1895, Taiwan has been under mainland rule for a grand total of four years: the period between the 1945 defeat of Japan in World War II and the Communist takeover of China in 1949. That year, the KMT government and several million mainland refugees arrived on Taiwan and created what they called “Free China” — even though for a quarter century it was a repressive one-party state that, like its bitter Communist enemy, rigorously stamped out any pro-independence sentiment”.

He concludes “Similarly after Ma’s unprecedented November meeting in Singapore with Xi, Tsai was unsparing in her criticism, using the occasion to evoke the danger of Chinese coercion. “We expected him,” she said of Ma, “to note Taiwan’s democracy, Taiwan’s freedom, the existence of the Republic of China, and most importantly, the rights Taiwanese have to decide their future freely. However, he did not mention any of those.” At around the same time, Tsai replied to those 70,000 pro-unification Facebook messages by making essentially the same point. “I hope this rare new experience can let the ‘new friend’ see a more complete democracy, freedom, and pluralism of Taiwan,” she wrote. On Jan. 16, the Taiwanese will show that they have the right to decide their future. And if Tsai emerges victorious, Beijing’s strenuous effort to win Taiwan’s population to the side of a unified China will have suffered a striking defeat”.



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