Much Ado About Everything No 12: Taiwan — More Uncertainty Ahead

The outcome of Taiwan’s local elections is not as helpful to Beijing and conducive to calm as it first appears.

"The results reflected the strong will of the Taiwan public in hoping to continue to share the benefits of the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait, and their strong wish in hoping to improve the island's economy and people's wellbeing,"

Official Statement of the Government of the People's Republic of China, 25 November 2018

“Shock Taiwan local elections…” began the headline in an article in yesterday’s Financial Times (subscriber access only) reflecting on the outcome of the 24 November local elections there. However, even taking into account losses in Kaohsiung and Taichung (both in its heartland support-wise), that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took something of a pounding at the hands of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) should not have come as a “shock” to anyone who follows Taiwanese politics even fairly loosely (unless, of course, one has total faith in Taiwan’s somewhat suspect opinion polls which had forecast losses for the DPP but on a lesser scale). After all, Taiwan's electorate is notoriously fickle and very inclined to turn against the ruling party at the first opportunity.

Regular readers may recall my frequent frustration with the FT’s headline writers (see here for example), in this case compounded by the fact that the headline in question goes on: “…result casts doubt over China policy”. This despite the fact that, in what is actually rather a good article, Edward White writes (accurately, in my view) as follows:

“Analysts said the local contests were fought mostly on domestic issues, including the economy and air pollution, and the result was not necessarily a rejection of [President] Tsai [Ing-wen]’s China policy — the president has sought to strengthen Taiwan’s military and build ties with western democracies in the face of Beijing’s claim that the island is part of its territory”.

Nevertheless — and in an effort to be fair to them — I will concede that the headline writers could simply be referring to the implications for the pro-independence DPP come the January 2020 general election…which are not good. As Eric Yu of the National Chengchi University Election Study Center was quoted as saying in yesterday’s Taipei Times:

”Rather than thinking that Saturday's results were because the KMT did a good job in opposition, it is more accurate to say they were due to voters' overwhelmingly negative perception of the DPP”.

For if the KMT were to prevail in 2020 we could be pretty sure of a policy shift towards China, at least economically, even though the electorate heavily punished it in 2016 for leaning in this direction (suggesting that the official PRC statement quoted at the start of this article may not be entirely accurate!).

And currently this does look to be the more likely outcome, not least because it will be hard to turn negative perceptions of the DPP around even if Tsai Ing-wen follows up on her quick decision to resign as DPP leader by stepping back in favour of another DPP presidential candidate in 2020 (thereby condemning herself to become Taiwan’s first one-term president).

All this being said, what really matters for the next 12 months at least — and what could swing the balance for 2020 back in favour of the DPP — is how China responds to the recent election outcome.

Since the DPP swept the KMT from office in the 2016 presidential and legislature elections, Beijing has sought to isolate Tsai Ing-wen over her refusal publicly to support the ‘One China’ principle, and to ratchet up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on the island. BUT, allegations of semi-covert efforts to influence public opinion notwithstanding, it has had the sense NOT overtly to try to influence the outcome of the recent elections — an approach which has generally backfired in the past.

Common sense therefore strongly suggests that Beijing should continue to pursue its current strategy. However, things may not be so straightforward.

For starters, even if Beijing does not ratchet up the pressure on Taiwan further, Tsai Ing-wen may be tempted to listen to senior members of her own party who are urging her to move even closer to the Washington. For example, Bloomberg quotes Jou Yi-cheng — a speechwriter to the very first DPP president, Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) — as follows:

“She will need to express clearly that Taiwan is happy to bolster cooperation with the US, while she also needs to make it clear that Taiwan is not trying to lock horns with China. Taiwan doesn’t deny its cultural links with China, but instead it is championing the universal values of freedom and democracy.”

Easy to say but much harder to do, in my opinion, especially given President Xi Jinping’s very thinly veiled determination to reunite China and Taiwan.

Secondly, even if Tsai Ing-wen resists the temptation to pivot further towards the US, as I argued in my 3 April article Taiwan could yet prove to be a bigger potential flashpoint between Beijing and Washington than the South China Sea — and especially if President Donald Trump further escalates his trade war with China, as he threatened yet again just yesterday.

Alastair Newton