Taiwan’s election of a pro-independence president is reviving frozen tensions with China. The estranged neighbours need to have a chat
As Taiwan was gearing itself to vote for a new leader on Saturday, something odd happened. Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year-old pop star, posted a video apologising for waving the Taiwanese flag on a South Korean television show. She’s said to have been pressured by her Korean manager into making amends so as to avoid angering China. The video, in which the singer looks morose and wears black, went instantly viral. Critics likened it to an ISIS propaganda tape. Presidential contenders swiftly condemned it.
The event, which kept social media busy far beyond the island’s shores, shows how central the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty was during this weekend’s elections. It also underscores how little it would take for simmering tensions with China to suddenly boil up.
It would be far-fetched to suggest that Chou’s apology was decisive in allowing Tsai Ingwen, the candidate of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to win the presidential poll by a 25 percent margin on Saturday. Although the scale of her victory surprised, polls had long expected Tsai to beat Eric Chu, the leader of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party. But the uproar the video triggered suggests she will have to exert her power very cautiously.
Her victory, indeed, did not come alone. Her party also crushed the KMT in the simultaneous legislative elections, winning the majority for the first time since 1949 by taking 68 out of 113 seats. Tsai, Taiwan’s first-ever female president, will therefore be able to govern with a strong mandate. But the former law professor will have to manage expectations carefully as she strive to answer voters’ hunger for change.
Taiwanese citizens are afraid Beijing is gaining too much influence over their island. They have rejected rapprochement efforts by Ma Ying-jeou, the most China-friendly president in Taiwan’s history, that saw Taipei sign 23 cross-Strait pacts over the last eight years. Last autumn Ma even met with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president – the first-ever encounter between the two sides’ leaders.
For a majority of Taiwanese, it appears that went too far. But many are equally concerned about the economy. Ma has failed to translate closer ties with Beijing into economic gains: the island’s GDP shrank 1 percent in the third quarter. The outlook does not seem to be about to improve, with a slowdown in China and lacklustre global trade set to further pressure its export-driven industry.
So a significant part of Tsai’s job will be to revive Taiwan’s ailing economy. She has the right pedigree: an expert in international trade, she was instrumental in drafting the island into the World Trade organisation in 2002. And she has ideas, too. She’s keen to lessen the territory’s reliance on China – which absorbs 40 percent of its exports – by fostering stronger links with the rest of Asia. Tsai wants Taiwan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a momentous trade initiative that doesn’t include China.
But her more urgent task is to prevent the Strait from turning into a diplomatic flashpoint once again. Bejing, which considers Taiwan as its province, will not make her task easy. Tsai disapproves of a 1992 consensus between the Communist nation and the KMT stating that both sides are part of “one China”. Although the president-elect has said she wants stable relationships with China, Beijing is suspicious of her motives. It will be watching her moves very closely to assess whether she’s still pursuing the eventual goal of independence. It may also start applying economic pressure as retribution for her opinions, for instance by reducing the more than 4 million tourists that cross the Strait every year.
She must not give mainland leaders any reason – or excuse – to act more forcefully than this. Under a 2005 law passed by Beijing when the last DPP president was in power, China can decide to invade the island if it believes Taiwan is making decisive moves towards secession. It is probably not what the regime wants. Xi would prefer to play the long game by winning the “hearts and minds” of Taiwan’s residents. But thousands of its missiles remain pointed at Taipei. It could decide to press the button if it fears the island is irrevocably slipping away.
Under Taiwan’s peculiar investiture laws, Tsai won’t be formally taking over as president before 20 May. She must use the time she has before then to seek a mutual understanding with Beijing. An agreement on the question of Taiwan sovereignty will no doubt remain beyond reach. But for what some describe as Asia’s best ‘frenemies’, simply kicking the can down the road should be enough to put tensions on ice.
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