China Prepares for Worst After Tsai Victory Upends Taiwan Plans

Tsai's Challenges: What's Ahead for Taiwan's New Leader?
  • Opposition landslide revives old source of regional tension
  • Communists weigh range of tools to pressure new president

Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide election win in Taiwan revives a long-dormant source of tension in Asia, as China waits to see how far the new president will push her party’s goal of independence.

QuickTake Taiwan’s Tightrope

The result, in which Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party also won its first legislative majority, was fueled in part by skepticism over Taiwan’s rapprochement with its former civil war foe during President Ma Ying-jeou’s eight-year tenure. While that policy put both China and the U.S. at greater ease, Taiwanese voters anxious over dependence on their giant, Communist-run neighbor overwhelmingly elected a party that officially supports separating from the mainland.

Now, less than three months after Xi Jinping’s historic meeting with Ma in Singapore, China must revise its road map for eventual reunification with Taiwan, which it considers a province. Its ability to reach some understanding with Tsai will determine whether both sides of the Taiwan Strait continue to grow together, or the relationship descends into economic estrangement or even threats of attack. The mainland is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, buying 40 percent of its exports, even as the two remain military rivals.

"Cross-strait political relations are entering a new juncture," said Xu Shiquan, a senior researcher at the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "The only certainty is the uncertainty ahead, and we can’t see where it’s heading for now." 

One China

The Communist Party’s suspicion of Tsai dates back to her days as an adviser to the KMT administration of ex-President Lee Teng-hui, when she helped draft a policy redefining the cross-strait relationship as a "special state-to-state" one, a move seen in Beijing as secessionist.

Formally joining the DPP in 2004, she served as minister for mainland affairs under DPP President Chen Shui-bian. He refused to accept the mainland’s precondition for talks and agree that both sides belong to one China, an idea known as the "1992 consensus."

Chen’s pursuit of independence led the Communist Party to pass in 2005 a law authorizing attack to prevent secession, a threat that still hangs over the island. Such spats pose a liability to the U.S., which is obligated to defend Taiwan under a 1979 law.

Although Tsai has also not endorsed the so-called "one China principle," she won over moderate voters wary of provoking China by pledging to uphold the "status quo" and focus on economic issues. 

‘No Accidents’

"I also assure you, in the future when I handle cross-strait relations, I’ll actively communicate," Tsai told supporters after her victory Saturday. "I won’t provoke, and there won’t be any accidents."

Shelley Rigger, a politics professor at Davidson College who wrote "Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse," said the DPP knows it was elected to address domestic concerns first. Tsai wouldn’t risk angering Beijing and derailing her agenda with policies just to please the more independence-minded members of her party.

"Tsai Ing-wen would be really cautious about that," Rigger said in Taipei. "Once you go off in that direction, there’s no turning back. The die is cast for the next eight years."

For the moment, it’s unclear how the Communist Party and the new leadership in Taipei will maintain communications. The Chinese government reaffirmed the 1992 consensus as the basis for any talks in a commentary Sunday and has previously warned relations might collapse without it.

Trade Deals

Officials on the mainland will be watching Tsai for even small signs of departure from the policies of Ma, who signed 23 cross-strait agreements on everything from allowing direct flights to opening each other’s financial sectors to investment. The leadership will be on alert for any efforts to emphasize Taiwanese -- as opposed to Chinese -- culture and identity in the island’s schools.

Ma’s trade agreements give China a myriad of new options for putting economic pressure on Taiwan that don’t involve military threats. They could reduce the more than 4 million mainland tourists that visit annually or withdraw from talks on reducing trade barriers to agricultural and manufactured goods. They could also resume efforts to lure away the last 22 states that still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

"A little bit of economic and trade suppression would probably inflict enough pain on the island," said Chang Ling-chen, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University. "And a bit of squeezing here and there in the international space would also be very tangible."

Bumpy Relations

Still, China benefits from closer economic ties with Taiwan, which advance its ultimate goal of reunification. The Communist Party must be careful not to appear too aggressive and alienate more Taiwanese voters, particularly young people who mounted student protests in 2014 against a services trade pact with the mainland.

Tsai won with the biggest margin of victory since Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election two decades ago. The DPP also secured 68 seats in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan.

"Relations are going to be more bumpy and perhaps tense, but Beijing’s interest is to make Taiwan more dependent, rather than less dependent, upon the mainland," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who specializes in cross-strait relations. "So it will try to weaken and isolate Tsai, but not to cut all ties with Taiwan."