The re-election of Tsai Ying-wen at the weekend ensures the continuation of the status quo as far as relations between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic across the Strait.
There was never any doubt about the outcome of the Taiwan presidential elections and the response by Beijing has been predictable. The question now is however how long the present equilibrium can last, and the biggest issue facing Tsai is how to strengthen the island’s defences in the face of growing PRC assertiveness.
Commenting on the election results, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesperson for the Taiwan Work Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, reiterated the current policy on reunification, saying, “We uphold the basic principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ and ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and the one-China principle, resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, resolutely oppose separatist attempts and acts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form, and resolutely promote the interests and well-being of Taiwan compatriots.”
Regardless of this, Tsai is definitely not going to change her government’s existing policy regarding relations with the mainland. Indeed it is doubtful that there would have been any change even if the opposition Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party had been elected. China will undoubtedly resume military exercises and will strive to prevent Taiwan participating in international organisations. Responding to this, Taiwan will work hard to maintain its present support from the USA and will also lobby “sympathetic” countries in the region, including Japan and South East Asian neighbours that already have concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea. Taiwanese companies will be urged to moderate their trade and investment on the mainland and build up local businesses instead. None of this is new. It remains to be seen whether the PRC will significantly boost its military stance and diplomatic efforts to isolate Taiwan.
Taiwan investments on the mainland have a history of thirty years or so, since the “opening up and reform” of the 1980s. Companies involved in this trade have been watching the trade war between the US and China closely, particularly if their business was export-oriented. If sanctions were to deepen, they would have extra incentive to relocate back to Taiwan or perhaps to SE Asia, but the present possible conclusion of a Phase One Deal will give them pause. US President Donald Trump is popular with DPP voters and they trust that he will continue to back them and not cosy up too much to Xi Jinping, even though he describes him as “a friend of mine.”
The PRC certainly used economic sanctions in an attempt to influence Taiwan government policy and the elections. Mainland tourists make up something like 25 percent of all inbound tourist numbers so it was an economic blow when the PRC recently stopped issuing exit visas to its citizens for individual visits. The Taiwan government responded by encouraging more tourists from regional countries such as Japan, Korea and the Philippines, with some success, although these cannot match mainland visitors in terms of spending power.
Taiwan voters were aware of these aspects of cross-Strait relations but they were not unduly influenced by them in casting their votes last Saturday. The PRC made vigorous attempts to influence the outcome of the elections. This was noted by the Taiwan government and an anti-infiltration law was passed in December banning specific activities such as foreign funding of lobbying and election campaigns – the PRC was not mentioned but was clearly the source of concern. It is clear that PRC soft power, lobbying, disinformation and cyber attacks, were singularly unsuccessful because the election results were not affected to any significant extent.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Tsai on her re-election and said that Taiwan “once again demonstrates the strength of its robust democratic system” but his remarks are open to interpretation since it is not clear to what extent the US supports Taiwan’s continued autonomous government or its aim to be an independent nation. Taiwan’s own formulation of this important issue is not straightforward either. It is significant that official name is still the Republic of China, not Taiwan or any other variant that would accompany a bid to be recognised internationally as independent. In claiming victory after the elections, Tsai said “Taiwan has shown the world how much we treasure our free and democratic way of life, and how much we cherish our nation: Taiwan, the Republic of China.”
Tsai in her campaign speeches referred quite frequently to the protest movement in Hong Kong, warning against the danger of Taiwan falling into the same situation if it accepted the mainland proposal for reunification under the “One Country Two Systems” formula that has applied in Hong Kong since 1997. There has been widespread support in Taiwan for the Hong Kong protestors. There has been strong support from western media also and protest leaders have visited Taiwan and the US and received training in civil disobedience from some non-government organisations. Pro-democracy politicians from Hong Kong were in Taiwan to observe the elections. There are clearly close links between Taiwan and Hong Kong in many ways but there is no evidence of official support for Hong Kong independence as has been suggested by some commentators.
On 17 December the US Senate passed a $700 billion National Defence Authorisation Act that includes support for Taiwan and investigation of China’s growing military might. China’s defence spending rose 7.5 percent in 2019 to US$168.6 billion. It is expected to increase again in 2020. The world hopes that calm heads will prevail on both sides of the Strait and that this will not become a flashpoint for direct confrontation. So far, it seems that both sides are exercising restraint.
Jocelyn Chey is a former senior diplomat with postings in China and Hong Kong and presently holds honorary positions at the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.