Even as many of the world’s electorates — most notably in the United States — are tilting toward the extremes, voters in Taiwan have bucked the trend and chosen the middle road. The election on Jan. 16 of Tsai Ing-wen, chair of the Democratic Progressive Party, as president is a signal that, however hesitant Taiwanese voters may be about entering into a deeper embrace with China, they also want to avoid a rupture in the relationship with their powerful neighbor and former antagonist.
Tsai, who will be Taiwan’s first female president, is said to have once supported Taiwanese independence, but she avoided expressing similar sentiments during the campaign, pledging instead to maintain the status quo. Indeed, she was careful to distance herself from her mentor, former President Lee Teng-hui, an outspoken supporter of a clear break with China.
Tsai’s victory over the China-friendly Kuomintang implies that relations with the mainland — which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that it will eventually reclaim — will be considerably more measured. Moreover, as a former law professor, she is likely to be a stickler for details in any negotiations with China.
Ironically, Tsai’s academic background (she studied at Cornell University and the London School of Economics) was probably one of the reasons for her loss to President Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 election — a campaign in which she appeared stiff and ill at ease with the give-and-take of politics. But in the last four years, her rhetorical skills and campaign manner have improved dramatically — to the point that her relaxed, animated persona is particularly popular among young voters.
Indeed, Tsai’s greatest ally late in the campaign was Chou Tzuyu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese singer in the popular South Korean girl band Twice. Chou came under fire in China after posing for a picture while holding the Taiwanese flag, and her public apology for doing so — made on YouTube — reminded many on the island of the degree to which China is willing to pressure people into silence.
Many in Taiwan believe that this undermined support for Ma, who had been working to foster closer ties to China. By failing to defend Chou, the Kuomintang alienated many members of the under-30 generation, who strongly identify with Taiwan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s summit with Ma in Singapore in November probably did more harm than good. Moreover, the announcement in December that the United States is to sell $1.83 billion in weapons to the Ma government is also a clear show of support for Taiwan, which already appeared ready to renounce the Kuomintang. Such a sale early in Tsai’s tenure would have irritated China, complicating relations not only between China and Taiwan, but also between China and the U.S.
Tsai’s election, with 56.1 percent of the vote, demonstrates that, while many Taiwanese want good relations with China, they are opposed to the “One China” policy repeatedly asserted in Beijing. And yet, in her relations with China, Tsai will have to walk a narrow path. If she explicitly distances herself from One China, she will undermine Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a grand vision for linking China to the rest of Asia and to Europe in which Taiwan is clearly expected to play an integral part. Instead, Tsai is more likely to harden the status quo, which will displease Xi, but not enough for him to seek to undermine her.
Friction with China in economic areas probably cannot be avoided. But an effort should be made to secure for Taiwan a market that is able to share common rules. Specifically, this requires finding the means to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and working with other countries in the Pacific to facilitate trade.
Tsai will not be inaugurated until May 20, so how the Ma government behaves in the interim could be decisive — especially if he ignores his electoral rebuke and continues to make overtures to China. Given China’s claims on Taiwan, any sign of serious political instability could incite a disproportionate response from Xi. For Taiwan, the next few months could prove to be even more important than the presidential campaign.
Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, was chairwoman of the LDP’s General Council. She is a member of the Diet. © 2015 Project Syndicate www.project-syndicate.org