Challenges for Tsai Ing-wen

China needs to respect Taiwan’s popular will expressed in the island’s presidential and parliamentary elections over the weekend and pursue dialogue, not confrontation, with what Beijing considers a renegade province under the Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai, for her part, should steer clear of straining the cross-straits relationship, as happened during the island’s previous DPP rule.

Tsai’s landslide win in Saturday’s election makes her Taiwan’s first female president when she formally takes office in May. Her victory comes on the heels of a rapid rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing under eight years of rule by the outgoing President Ma Ying-Jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT). Tsai’s victory and her DPP’s sweep of a majority in the Legislative Yuan, the first since the legislature’s seats were opened for direct elections in 1992, may signal Taiwanese voters’ repudiation of Ma’s China-friendly policies.

That should not lead Tsai and the DPP to return to the hardline stance toward China taken by the previous DPP government under Chen Shui-bian from 2000 to 2008. After the election win, Tsai said she would try to “maintain the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” to bring the greatest benefits and well-being to the Taiwanese people, while also warning Beijing that “any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations.”

China is wary of the DPP as a party that seeks an independence of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited — by force if necessary. Upon Tsai’s victory in the presidential race, the Chinese government issued a statement saying that it will “resolutely oppose any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities.”

After taking back government reign from the DPP eight years ago, Ma actively promoted closer economic ties with China. But the deepening cross-strait economic integration sparked concern among Taiwanese people that the island’s autonomy was being undermined. Symbolic of the growing discontent of Taiwan’s voters against the policy were the five seats in Parliament gained in Saturday’s election by a new political party which grew out of the student protest movement against Ma’s trade pact with China in 2014.

Today, China is the largest destination of Taiwan’s exports, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the total. About 1 million employees of Taiwanese businesses and their relatives are estimated to stay in mainland China. The number of Chinese tourists to Taiwan has expanded 12 times since Ma lifted the ban in 2008 to hit nearly 4 million in 2014. But popular resentment is said to be strong that the expansion of Taiwanese firms’ activities in China has led to the hollowing out of the island’s industries and jobs, and that the deeper cross-strait business relations have not benefited Taiwanese people at large while turning the island increasingly dependent on the mainland.

The historic meeting last November between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore — the first between top leaders of China and Taiwan since the Nationalists fled to the island and the Communist Party took power after the civil war in 1949 — may have been intended to demonstrate the cozy ties between Beijing and Taipei under the KMT rule and influence Taiwan’s elections, in which Tsai and the DPP held a strong lead over the Kuomintang and its candidate. But the results of Saturday’s polls suggest that the Taiwanese voters were not swayed.

Tsai won about 56 percent of the votes in Saturday’s election, far more than the 31 percent gained by Eric Chu, the KMT candidate. The DPP, which had never won more than 40 percent of the parliament seats in the past, captured 68 of the 113 seats at stake, while the KMT took only 35 seats.

Despite her and the DPP’s election wins, Tsai will face tough challenges ahead, including keeping relations with China from being strained while responding to the popular discontent as demonstrated at the polls. Reviving Taiwan’s economy, which has been hit by the slowdown in China’s growth, will also be among her key tasks.

For its part, China, which in 1996 threatened Taiwan’s first democratic election of its president with missile exercises, should take the outcome of the election as a cue that either political and military pressures or economic interests alone would not sway popular sentiments in Taiwan. Beijing needs to keep up its dialogue with Taiwan under Tsai’s leadership and seek to build a new, mutually acceptable foundation for cross-strait relations.

Stable and favorable ties between China and Taiwan matter a lot for security in Asia. Japan, along with other countries in the region, should take steps that will be conducive to promoting cross-strait dialogue.

  • Liars N. Fools

    I added this to The Diplomat discussion.

    I just wrote this in Bloomberg, but it is applicable here, too.
    While most commentary is, rightfully so, on the cross strait dimensions, this editorial tried to steer a discussion towards the economy. Much has already been written and said about China’s downturn, and we should look more closely at the economic challenge that Tsai faces.

    The economy is stagnant. The same aging society issues that confront Korea and Japan confront Taiwan in spades. University graduates find themselves without great employment prospects, and the search for new growth initiatives is not doing well. The interdependence with China will certainly continue, and while mostly win-win, maybe the Chinese will win more, albeit they too are heavily beset. Taiwan is unlike Korea and Japan in not having truly heavyweight corporate conglomerates, and while its SME sector is far more developed than jaebol-dominated Korea, a lot of Taiwan SMEs are struggling. Size also matters, and Taiwan has only half the population of Korea. While political constraints limit Taiwan’s international space, it has actually not taken full advantage of, say, membership as mostly equal in organizations like APEC. Hopefully someone who has the smarts to negotiate Taiwan’s entry into the WTO can also invigorate the island country’s involvement in economic organizations like APEC, too, and use that and other platforms to influence and deepen relationships using Taiwan’s successful SME and ICT experience.

    Rather than a new dawn, both China and Taiwan have significant economic shadows, and while some in the commentariat seem to want a cross strait clash of some sort, it would appear that stability on that front is necessary for the leadership in Beijing and Taipei to focus on their myriad economic problems, including the international dimensions thereof.

  • CaptainAsia

    Go TAIWAN, TAIWAN IS NOT CHINA. We all know that!!!

  • CaptainAsia

    Go TAIWAN, TAIWAN IS NOT CHINA. We all know that!!!

  • CaptainAsia

    Go TAIWAN, TAIWAN IS NOT CHINA. We all know that!!!

  • CaptainAsia

    Recently China is just threatening everyone, have you noticed that????

  • CaptainAsia

    Recently China is just threatening everyone, have you noticed that????

  • CaptainAsia

    Recently China is just threatening everyone, have you noticed that????