NEW YORK – The people of Taiwan have spoken. The presidential and parliamentary elections held on Jan. 16 resulted in a landslide victory for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with party chairwomanTsai Ing-wen being elected the first female president in Taiwan’s history.
The elections also gave the DPP a solid majority in the 113-member Legislative Yuan (parliament) with 68 seats won, providing a stable political environment for the new president to lead Taiwan for the next four years. It is the first time the DPP has secured a majority in Parliament, where the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) has traditionally held a majority, including during the last time the DPP was in power from 2000 to 2008.
The major issue in the election campaign was Taiwan’s cross-strait relations with China. KMT candidate Eric Chu campaigned for closer ties with China, which he argued would promise further economic development for Taiwan.
Meanwhile Tsai, mindful of the concerns among the general public about Taiwan’s increasing economic dependency on China, advocated that maintaining the status quo in its relations with China would be the best option for Taiwan. At the same time, to avoid provoking Beijing she effectively shelved the party’s traditional of platform of moving toward independence from China. Instead, she focused her campaign on reasserting Taiwanese pride for “Taiwan being Taiwan.” Her pragmatic and nuanced policy vis-a-vis Beijing brought her a sweeping triumph in the presidential race, in which she captured 56 percent of the vote against Chu’s 31 percent.
During the eight years of KMT rule under President Ma Ying-jeou since 2008, Taiwan moved closer to China both politically and economically. A series of high-level unofficial dialogue between the two sides led to a historic, albeit unsubstantial, meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore last November. Economically, China emerged as Taiwan’s largest trading partner accounting for 40 percent of its exports. Taiwan was flooded with more than 3 million tourists from the mainland each year.
Ma’s policy, however, benefited only the big companies that do business with China, while leaving the masses struggling with various socio-economic problems, including the ever-shrinking pay scale for fresh college graduates and skyrocketing real estate prices.
The KMTs policy of seeking closer ties with the mainland gave rise to concerns among the general public that the excessive dependency on China not only hurt Taiwan’s economy, but also left it vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. Alarmed, a coalition of college students occupied the parliamentary building in the “Sunflower Student Movement” in the spring of 2014 when the KMT-led Parliament tried to pass a new trade agreement with China. A new political party formed out of the movement captured five seats in the parliamentary elections, a show of rising youth power in Taiwanese politics.
Tsai, who will be sworn into office in May, will inherit the daunting task of reviving Taiwan’s economy while carefully managing cross-strait relations. A professor-turned-politician, educated in the United States and Britain, Tsai appears to be cognizant of the complexity and dynamics of the challenges facing her and is ready to pilot Taiwan through uncharted waters. In her post-election speeches, Tsai said that she would establish “consistent, predictable and sustainable” relations with China and not to be provocative. “Both sides of the strait have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction that are based on dignity and reciprocity,” she added.
While maintaining the status quo in its relations with China, Taiwan is expected to expand its ties with the U.S., Japan and other countries with which it shares democratic values. In fact, Tsai has indicated that Taiwan will seek to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among 12 Pacific-Rim countries including Japan, the U.S. and several ASEAN countries. Domestically, the new president is expected to urgently address pressing socio-economic issues, particularly the meager wages being paid to young workers and ever-increasing housing prices that are far beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.
A democratic, stable and prosperous Taiwan is crucial to the peace and stability of the region. Considering the strategic importance of Taiwan, Japan, the U.S. and other democracies should support Tsai in her endeavor to manage and maintain pragmatic relations with China, while advancing Taiwan’s thriving democracy.
It remains to be seen, of course, how China will deal with the Tsai government. However, Beijing should realize that saber-rattling would only backfire and further alienate Taiwan because in a democratic society people’s minds cannot be changed by pressure.
China has emerged as a global political, economic and military power over the last few decades since its opening in the early 1980s. But unlike Taiwan, China has yet to achieve a society where the basic norms of democracy, including respect for human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law, are upheld. China’s traditional values such as virtue, benevolence, righteousness, trust and politeness are more respected today in Taiwan than China, where one-party rule by the Chinese Communist Party continues.
Taiwan’s experience of transforming itself from an authoritarian state to a thriving democracy should benefit China’s own transition to democracy in the long-run. Only when the gap in the democratic standards of the two sides narrows will it be possible for China and Taiwan to find a mutually agreeable mechanism for defining future cross-strait relations.
A former U.N. official, Hitoki Den is the author of the “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”), published in Japanese by The Japan Times, and many other articles on the U.N. and Asian issues.