Asia Pacific | FOCUS

No soul-searching for Xi Jinping after Taiwan rebuffs China in election

by Samson Ellis and Peter Martin

Bloomberg

In a democracy, two resounding election defeats in a matter of months might prompt some soul-searching in the losing camp.

In China, however, a snub at the polls in territories it claims is more a minor setback rather than a sign of a flawed strategy. President Xi Jinping’s government showed that yet again in the wake of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide win Saturday, which came shortly after Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces gave Beijing a black eye in a November election.

“This temporary counter-current is just a bubble under the tide of the times,” the official state-run Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary after Tsai’s win. Blaming “anti-China political forces in the West” and calling the election a “fluke,” it warned that “reunification cannot be stopped by any force or anyone.”

China’s response signals it would maintain a hard line during Tsai’s second term, using its clout as the world’s second-biggest economy to lure Taipei’s 15 remaining formal diplomatic partners and offer further incentives to Taiwanese businesses. It could also flex its increasing military strength by stepping up air force and naval patrols around the island.

But just as China’s uncompromising approach in Hong Kong has strengthened the city’s pro-democracy forces, so far its tough approach to Taiwan has only reduced support for its stated goal of unification. Tsai saw her poll numbers surge after her vocal backing of Hong Kong’s protests, which have widespread support in Taiwan.

“I doubt that Beijing will reflect on the meaning of President Tsai’s victory, but will double down on the coercive policies it deployed during her first term,” said Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former head of the American Institute in Taiwan. “Beijing sees the Trump administration, and not President Tsai, as the more dangerous variable here. It will push back harder against U.S. initiatives to help Taiwan.”

Saturday’s election victory by Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party amounted to its fourth win over Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition in six elections since 2000. She secured 57 percent of the vote, compared with 39 percent for Han Kuo-yu, whose Kuomintang party oversaw a historic expansion of cross-strait economic ties in the 1990s. Her party also held onto its majority in the legislature, albeit with a reduced margin.

In her first public appearances after the win, Tsai signaled she was bracing for Beijing’s wrath by meeting local envoys from China’s biggest rivals, the U.S. and Japan. While it’s extremely unlikely Tsai would assert the island’s formal independence, a move that could trigger war, she has angered Beijing by refusing to accept the belief that both sides are part of “one China.”

Taiwan tourism stocks Monday tumbled the most in more than a year, even as investors were generally positive on the election outcome. Ahead of the election, China banned individual travel to Taiwan, prompting the number of Chinese visitors to plunge by 52.5 percent in October from a year earlier.

“In the past three years, Taiwan has refused to bow to pressure, but also refrained from provocation or rash behavior when it comes to cross-strait relations,” Tsai told the Japanese delegation Sunday in Taipei. “In the future, we will continue to take this same approach.”

U.S. support

Any resolution of Taiwan’s status risks bringing China into a direct military conflict with the U.S., the island’s main ally and arms supplier. Support for Taipei has surged in Washington since President Donald Trump held an unprecedented phone call with Tsai, dubbed China a “strategic competitor” and launched a bruising trade war against Xi’s government.

While a formal trade deal with the U.S. remains elusive, Taiwan has emerged as one of the surprise beneficiaries of the trade war, with its companies securing orders worth billions of dollars from American customers forced to seek alternative suppliers outside China. The Trump administration, among other things, also approved an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan last year, the first such deal in almost 30 years.

“The American people and the people of Taiwan are not just partners — we are members of the same community of democracies, bonded by our shared political, economic, and international values,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement after the election. Similar remarks from prominent Democrats suggest such support for Taiwan will endure regardless of the outcome of U.S.’s own election in November.

The U.S.’s involvement makes it particularly difficult for Xi to take a softer approach, since the Communist Party has promised to restore what it believes was its rightful territory before a “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial powers. Earlier this month, China appointed an official that analysts described as a “strong man” to replace its top representative in Hong Kong, after a historic defeat for Beijing loyalists in local elections.

In a speech last year, Xi reaffirmed Beijing’s desire to govern Taiwan under the same “one country, two systems” framework as Hong Kong. Taiwan’s election outcome would only embolden those in Beijing who favor asserting control over the island by force, according to one Chinese official who asked not to be named speculating about internal policy discussions.

“The status of Taiwan is not up to the 23 million people in Taiwan to decide by themselves,” said Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and interpreter for late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. “One way or another this issue will need to come to a head. Everyone hopes it will be peaceful, but eventually if this fails there may be other solutions.”

Hearts and minds

While the Communist Party-led government in Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory, it has never controlled the island. China’s former Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek assumed power over Taiwan from the Japanese after World War II. It later became a refuge for Chiang and his troops as they fled the Communists at the end of China’s civil war in 1949.

Xi’s hard line against Taiwan and Hong Kong may appeal to the almost 1.4 billion people already living under direct Communist Party rule in the mainland. Aided by decades of nationalist education and the world’s most sophisticated censorship regime, Beijing has so far enjoyed broad domestic support for its policies in both territories.

But that approach has backfired among the people that China wants to control. Beijing’s belligerent tone has failed to win the hearts and minds of the public and left “China with no serious allies in Taiwan, not even those who want to promote peaceful unification,” according to Chang Ya-chung, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University who is among the minority in Taiwan that support unification.

“The Chinese Communist Party leadership seems to be falling for its own propaganda and underestimating the challenges it faces in seeking to occupy Taiwan,” said Alex Joske, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who focuses on Chinese Communist Party influence operations. “Its attempts to interfere in Taiwan appear to have sowed division in society, but haven’t successfully changed the outcome of this election.”