A prelude to Taiwan’s next presidential race in January has already set in. Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu visited Beijing in early May and met with President Xi Jinping to underline the close ties between the Kuomintang government of Taiwan and China’s communist regime.
Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and nominated as its presidential candidate, is scheduled to visit the United States from May 29 to June 9 to meet with government officials, members of Congress and Taiwanese residents in an attempt to garner U.S. support for her bid.
Every time Taiwan holds a presidential election, China and the U.S. apply pressure to produce a favorable result for themselves. Both countries should exercise self-restraint and respect Taiwan’s democratic process, allowing the island’s voters to freely express their will without trying to influence the outcome from outside.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou stepped down as Kuomintang chief in December following the party’s devastating defeat in local elections in November. Chu, despite enjoying high popularity within the party, declined to take part in a primary to choose the KMT candidate for the election next Jan. 16, apparently because his chance of winning the race against the DPP’s Tsai was deemed to be poor.
He also has more than three years remaining to serve as mayor of New Taipei. Still, the possibility can’t be ruled out that KMT officials, without holding a primary, may eventually nominate Chu as their candidate.
During his talks with Chu, Xi, apparently in view of the possibility of the pro-independence DPP coming to power with the January election, made remarks that seemed designed to influence Taiwanese voters’ views in ways more favorable to China. He called for increased exchanges between Chinese and Taiwanese youths. The latter generally feel antipathy toward the rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing.
The basis for the current Taiwan-China relationship is the so-called 1992 Consensus, which upholds the “one China” principle but leaves it open to separate interpretations by China and Taiwan. Both Xi and Chu in their meeting countered the DPP, which does not accept the consensus and calls for independence in its platform.
Tsai, however, has made it clear that she will not follow a radical independence line. In April she stated at a party meeting that she supports “maintaining the status quo” and “stability in cross-strait relations.”
After coming to power in 2008 following eight years of rule by the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, Ma promoted economic and personnel exchanges across the Taiwan Strait, signing a free trade agreement called the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and a service trade agreement with China.
Many Taiwanese, however, believe that such deals have not brought them much benefit and feel resentment toward the Kuomintang for implementing them. In addition, there exist worries that Beijing is covertly trying to unify Taiwan with China and that closer ties with China will lead to the hollowing-out of the island’s economy.
Unemployment among Taiwanese youths is also serious, and the protest movement by students opposing the service trade accord with Beijing last year caused Ma’s popular support to plummet. As Xi tries to boost China’s interests and presence in Asia through such initiatives as creation of the New Silk Road economic zone, which will include the South China Sea, apprehension that Taiwan may be “swallowed up” by China is growing strong.
In this situation, the results of a poll carried out by National Chengchi University toward the end of last year are suggestive. A record 60.6 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese, while only 3.5 percent called themselves Chinese and 32.5 percent said they see themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese.
The Chinese Communist Party favors the Kuomintang party over the DPP because both embrace the “one-China” principle that rejects independence for Taiwan. But Beijing should recognize that the DPP, along with the Kuomintang, is a party that represents Taiwan’s popular will. Instead of dismissing the DPP as a party bent on achieving Taiwan’s independence, it needs to treat the party as a partner for dialogue.
In the 2012 presidential election, both China and the U.S. — in their pursuit of stability in cross-Strait relations — applied de facto pressure to help Ma defeat Tsai. The U.S. appears to have sought to avoid the return of unstable China-Taiwan ties that resulted from Chen’s anti-Beijing policy. The U.S., as an advocate of democracy, should refrain from again interfering in Taiwan’s presidential election.
It has been reported that during a closed-door meeting of the DPP’s China policy committee, Tsai stressed that she will try to “avoid incidents” and not provoke “contradictions, confrontations or conflicts” in Taiwan’s relations with China. U.S. officials need to ditch their preconception that DPP rule would inevitably strain Taiwan-China relations and listen to what she says about her policy toward China during her upcoming visit to Washington.
The Taiwanese people obviously do not want to see conflicts flare up between Taiwan and China. For her part, Tsai has a responsibility to develop a policy that will contribute to building stable and mutually beneficial ties between Taiwan and China while firmly retaining the island’s autonomy.