Taiwan’s election portents new dynamic with Beijing

Taiwan’s election portents new dynamic with Beijing

The new path charted by Ms Tsai’s political vision could represent an important opportunity for Taiwan to restore its prestige as a valuable economic and strategic partner for neighbouring nations.

A new phase of the Taiwanese politics

Under the auspices of revitalising the national political landscape and creating the conditions to shape a new role for Taiwan in the region, Tsai Ing-Wen has been elected as the country’s first female president. Her party the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) won 68 of the 113 seats at the Legislative Yuan, defeating the ruling Kuomintang’s candidate Eric Chu.

On Saturday, the People’s Republic of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office released a statement via the Xinhua news agency, stressing the determination of Beijing to oppose any attempts to proclaim the independence of the island. In the recent PRC’s Defence White Paper, Taiwan’s independence sentiments is considered the main source of destabilisation in the area and a primary concern for the development of peaceful interactions between the two sides. Indeed, the victory of a pro-independence DPP candidate creates concerns for the future of the cross-strait relations, despite Ms Tsai’s reassurance that her main priority will be to maintain constructive relations with Beijing.

In 2000, under Chen Shui-bian administration, DPP championed the cause of the independence of the island, triggering China’s furious response over an issue considered outrageous by Beijing. Although the DPP has partially abandoned its independence desire, Ms Tsai has pledged her firm resolution to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty. Under Tsai, the DPP’s ambiguous position over the principles of the 1992 consensus; claiming that China and Taiwan are part of the same nation, could add significant tensions to future developments in cross-strait relations.

Yet, the 1992 consensus framework has played an important role in the stabilisation of the cross-strait relations and it has been strongly encouraged by the KMT and outgoing president Ma Ying-Jeou, the deus ex machina of the appeasement strategy aiming on fostering the economic and political relations between the two sides. During his last mandate, President Ma Ying-Jeou signed 23 cross-strait agreements bolstering positive interactions with the PRC, culminating with the first-ever meeting of the two sides’ leaders.

A new model of economic development but with Taiwanese characteristics

Despite the KMT’s efforts to shape a new phase of positive relations with China based on regional economic integration under the benevolent auspices of Beijing, President Ma’s open-door diplomacy has been strongly criticised for facilitating the economic control of Beijing over sensitive sectors of Taiwan’s economy. The mobilisation of the Sunflower movement and the student protests culminating in the occupation of the legislative Yuan, coupled by KMT’s inability to use the newly established economic ties with Beijing to revitalise the economy have surely contributed to the electoral setback.

On the other hand, Ms Tsai electoral success has been characterised by her ability to re-focus the campaign, styling herself a valuable alternative, able to respond to the nation’s pressing economic issues. This new model of economic development, able to counter the stagnation and reshape the level of economic competitiveness, is based on shifting from an efficiency-driven model to an innovation-driven one. Additionally, fostering the economy and promoting Taiwan’s role as a reliable partner has become one of the top priorities on Ms Tsai’s economic agenda.

This includes establishing and expanding the strategic partnership with the United States and other regional partners. It is also vital for Taiwan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to present itself as a proactive diplomatic actor on the international stage. According to the DPP’s vision, President Ma Ying-Jeou’s doctrine of cross-straits economic integration with Beijing endangers Taiwan’s independence as well as the country’s deeply rooted democratic values.

Changing Dynamics

Relations with the PRC remains one of the most crucial issues for Taiwan and the marked change represented by the victory of the DPP presents new challenges for Beijing. The PRC’s leadership still claims sovereignty over its renegade province. Despite the progress made by President Ma Ying-Jeou with the 1992 consensus framework which acknowledges the existence of one China, with each side having its own interpretation, the DPP has shown some reluctance in embracing this vision.

Conversely, Ms Tsai has reiterated her position on maintaining the status quo, but given the DPP majority inside the legislature, further attempts to implement or modify the 1992 framework are more likely. Specifically the creation of a Cross-Strait Agreement Oversight Bill seeks to establish a new and comprehensive set of rules for overseeing cross-strait exchanges, and could provoke a fierce response from CCP hardliners less inclined to make concessions to the Tsai administration.

More importantly, given the marked strategic shifts in regional dynamics and the increase in military assertiveness that has characterised Beijing’s new strategic vision for the region, the development of military deterrence remains one of the most important priorities for Ms Tsai.

Yet, developing strategic capabilities highlights the need for Taipei to increase security levels,  but also to shape new and important strategic cooperation frameworks with regional partners that have similar assessments of the perceived threats from China; whether attacks in cyberspace, natural resources competition, territorial disputes, or economic vulnerabilities.

The new path charted by Ms Tsai’s political vision could represent an important opportunity for Taiwan to restore its prestige as a valuable economic and strategic partner for neighbouring nations interested in shaping economic, political, and strategic models beyond the harmonious integration proposed by Beijing.

In terms of cross-strait relations, Ms Tsai appears to be determined to impose herself as a resolute and pragmatic leader, able to view the changes in the region and seize the opportunity. What remains difficult to predict will be the CPP’s inclination to elaborate a new approach towards a less accommodating Taiwanese leader than President Ma Ying-Jeou, without pursuing a path that could promote additional instability in the region and jeopardise the limited results achieved between the two sides.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.