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Taiwan-China relations (part 2): Beijing is the determining factor

Taiwan-China relations (part 2): Beijing is the determining factor

As was laid out in part 1 of this two-part series, barring major unforeseen developments between now and voting day on January 16, 2016, it is likely that Tsai Ing-wen will become Taiwan's first female president.

China stated in its recent defense white paper that 'the root cause of instability (in the Taiwan Strait) has not yet been removed, and the "Taiwan independence" separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations.'

Taking this into account, how Beijing will react to the likely election of Tsai will be the determining factor in whether cross-strait relations during the next four or eight years of DPP rule will be characterised by continuity or renewed tensions. Who in Beijing succeeds in taking the lead on the Taiwan 'issue' will also have an impact on future developments.

One way in which Beijing could react is to 'punish' the Taiwanese for making the 'wrong' choice in the polls by choosing Tsai over the more pro-China KMT candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu Such a policy could include an economic embargo of Taiwan or more coercive measures. One strategy could be for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT to do everything in their power to discredit the DPP administration. This could help aid a return for the KMT in the 2018 municipal elections and the 2020 presidential elections. However, such efforts would be mitigated if the DPP also wins a majority of seats in parliament (the legislative elections are being held concurrently on January 16).

Additionally, with the encouragement of PLA's General Political Department Liaison Department, pro-unification forces that have spread across Taiwan in recent years would conceivably play a greater role if the DPP came back to power, especially if the Party wins a majority in parliament. [fold]

Given the years that pro-unification actors have had to establish their networks in Taiwan the state apparatus is probably no longer in a position to monitor, let alone counter, all their activities. Elements from the 'deep blue' and pro-unification civil society could also decide to mimic the Sunflower Movement and use civil disobedience to undermine the DPP administration, which would contribute to social unrest.

More overt action by Beijing, however, could be counterproductive. As the missile crisis in 1995-96 made perfectly clear, direct Chinese coercion can backfire, and instead of deterring the Taiwanese it can convince them to dig in their heels. In this case it would imply the acceleration of Taiwanese nationalism and the deepening of anti-China sentiment. Taiwan's reaction to recent CCTV footage depicting a military exercise simulating an assault on a structure that bears a striking resemblance to the Presidential Office in Taipei is a case in point.

As such pressure would threaten to undo the years of rapprochement and growing interdependence that flourished under President Ma, we cannot automatically assume that Beijing would take such risks and decide to 'punish' Taiwan. It is therefore possible that like Tsai, Beijing would seek continuity. Although Beijing's ability to get what it wants through traditional channels would be greatly diminished with her election, and could therefore compel it to activate pro-unification sub-state forces. 

It's also important to put the possible return of the DPP to power in its proper geopolitical context. There is growing disillusionment around the region with Beijing and with its territorial assertiveness, and its intensifying crackdown on its civil society is not winning it any friends.

Consequently, if she acts carefully, Tsai could find herself in a much more enviable position internationally – or at least in Washington – than former President Chen, who chose to press ahead with his quest for symbols of statehood at a time when the international community was still optimistic about the future prospects of a more benign, if not entirely democratic, China.

Despite the current numbers suggesting a DPP victory, many things can happen in six months, and the KMT, for all its faults, is a survivor – and an extraordinary wealthy one at that.

In the event of a KMT/Hung Hsiu-chu victory, the outcome of the legislative election will be important, as the balance in parliament would affect the ability of the executive to implement (or impose) its policies. A KMT victory with a DPP majority in the Legislative Yuan would probably neutralise a Hung-led administration, just as the KMT majority succeeded in undermining president Chen during his two terms. If this situation were to occur, Hung would be unable to impose her policies – unless she decided to act more like her authoritarian counterparts in Beijing. However, as we saw when President Ma crossed certain red lines on China, Taiwan's civil society would once again spring into action if it perceived that Taiwan's way of life was being threatened. 

The same applies, with greater prospects of major social unrest, in the even less likely scenario in which the KMT wins both the presidency and a majority in the legislature. This would be construed by both the conservative (pro-unification) forces in Taiwan and Beijing as a sign of 'universal' support for Hung's ideology. In such a context, the super-empowered youth that rose against the authorities in 2014 and succeeded in derailing President Ma's plans would be expected to take action again, with a high likelihood of escalation. 

In the scenario of a president Hung who controls both the executive and legislative branches of government, the level of fear among young Taiwanese – who, as some repeatedly told this author, have no other passport and must therefore live with the consequences – would increase exponentially. Such fears could be mitigated if once elected, President Hung softened her China policies and surrounded herself with moderate ideologues. While this looks unlikely, elected officials generally tend to move towards the 'center' once they are elected.

Under the current conditions, by adopting a more centrist position with the greatest appeal to the majority of Taiwanese, the DPP seems the likeliest to ensure social stability in Taiwan if elected. Hung's KMT would likely prove the most destabilising – simply because the DPP has been better at assessing what the people want and gauging the temperature of Taiwan's nationalism.

Whether Beijing understands the constraints that democracy places on political parties, and how it reacts when this yields results that are probably not to its liking, will be the determining factor in the stability of the Taiwan Strait for years to come.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user tomscy2000.

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