Do Taiwan’s 2016 Elections Threaten Ties with China?

Do Taiwan’s 2016 Elections Threaten Ties with China?

With Taiwan’s pro-independence presidential candidate firmly leading in the polls for the upcoming 2016 election, tensions between Beijing and Taipei could escalate as Taiwan’s recent pro-China stance is reversed.

For nearly eight years Taiwan’s pro-China policy has stabilized the relationship between the two governments. However, social unrest in Taiwan seems to have become a regular phenomenon as every act by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist party, has been sharply criticized.

The upcoming presidential election on January 16th 2016, has drawn attention and raises the question whether the relatively quiet state of affairs in the Taiwan Strait could give way to renewed conflict. For instance, Time’s recent Asia edition, in which Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (right), made the cover, claimed a potential DPP win in 2016 “makes Beijing nervous”.

Is the spectre of independence in the air again?

At the heart of concerns about the fallout of the upcoming election is the the pro-independent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who are widely considered to win the election in 2016. This projection has been supported by different polling agencies, which despite their respective biases, all show that the DPP candidate is perfectly situated to defeat the ruling party’s candidate.

One of the latest polls of presidential election conducted on 22 July 2015. Source: Next TV

DPP popularity is in large part due to anger towards the KMT government of Ma Ying-Jeou. During the second term of Ma’s presidency, domestic dissatisfaction over Taipei’s China-friendly policy was brewing, peaking during last year’s Sunflower Movement. This consisted of 23 days of protest provoked by a trade agreement with China that made many Taiwanese worry about Beijing’s increasing presence on the island.

In addition, the ruling KMT party’s claim that the economy could grow steadily if Taiwan engaged with China did not resonate with most middle class Taiwanese, as the average wage has stalled over the last 15 years. These sentiments, alongside KMT mismanagement of other domestic issues, led to a huge defeat in local elections for the ruling party in the end of 2014.

Economics trumps rhetoric

It seems that a change in governing party and policy direction (both less disposed toward China) in Taiwan is increasingly likely. However, before 2008, Taiwan’s previous president Chen Shui-bian pursued a drastic independence policy that not only deteriorated bilateral relationships but also cost the government the support of voters. Furthermore, one of the major differences between 2008 and today is Taiwan’s economic dependence on China.

As a result of seven years of engagement, China is now Taiwan’s largest trade partner and debtor. In 2014 the share of Taiwanese export to China (Hong Kong included) accounted for almost 40% of total exports. Similarly, Chinese imports comprised more than 25% of Taiwan’s total imports. The considerably higher degree of economic dependence on China has constrained the autonomous inclinations of Taiwan’s political class.

Lastly, though the U.S. has begun to take a tougher stance on China under its ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy and despite several military interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan of late, the former still implements a rather ambiguous strategy towards the latter due to its unique status. This is clear for instance in Taiwan’s exemption from joint drills conducted by Washington in the South China Sea, as well as the steady progress of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with both trends making Taiwan more isolated and vulnerable.

Even though the DPP is predicted to return to office within six months, the Taiwan Strait will likely remain calm, as Taipei is less likely to rock the boat as Taiwan can hardly undertake a policy U-turn overnight. Furthermore DPP presidential candidate Tsai has also openly remarked on her respect of the ‘status quo’, as this remains the ideal condition for Taiwan-China relations in the foreseeable future as well as for the interests of the region as a whole.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Tsao Ting-Chih

Ting-Chih Tsao is currently a master’s degree student studying International Political Economy at King’s College London. His research interest lies in the Asia-Pacific region. He is also currently working for a business risk consultancy based in London, focusing on China division. Tsao holds a BA in Diplomacy from National Chengchi University, Taiwan.