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Political ‘Earthquake’ In Taiwan Could Unsettle Ties With Beijing – Analysis


In a remarkable turnaround in Taiwanese politics, the self-ruled island of 23 million people, Taiwan elected its first female president on 16 January 2016 in a landmark election after eight years under the government of the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party. The leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen, won the presidency with 56.1 % of the vote. Unlike other Asian women who took political power, she does not come from a political family. Though she refuses to accept that Taiwan is a part of ‘one China’, she has promised to maintain peaceful and stable relations with Beijing. Her political stance, however, could unsettle relations with China. China lost no time in warning against any ‘independence’ move. China claims the island as its own territory and threatens to use force if it declares formal independence. It may be mentioned that the outgoing Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou served eight years and was constitutionally barred from another term.

Eric Chu, the Nationalist Party candidate conceded defeat. It was for the first time the KMT lost control of the island’s legislature. While the DPP took 68 of the 113 seats in Taiwan’s parliament, the DPP could gather only 35. In a post-election news conference, Tsai underscored Taiwan’s commitment to democracy, calling it a value “deeply engrained in the Taiwanese people.” She also acknowledged the tenuous relationship with Beijing, saying both sides “have a responsibility to do their utmost to find mutually acceptable ways to interact … and ensure no provocation and no surprises.”

Tsai’s political journey started in 2012, when she made her first presidential bid. She lost to Ma and her party suffered a crushing defeat in the legislative polls. With few seats, her party could not even be an effective opposition to Ma’s party, which has ruled Taiwan since 1945 except for an eight-year period of the DPP rule between 2000 and 2008. This time, Tsai was a clear front runner and her victory was not a surprise. Despite its 2012 defeat in presidential and legislative elections, the DPP had made significant gains under Tsai’s leadership, culminating to the office of President.

Her relative inexperience in politics vis-à-vis veterans could be seen as a liability but the same could be strength as well as it frees her from the factional baggage of party heavyweights. In a male-dominated world of East Asian politics, Tsai’s victory as a woman President injects a new dynamism to the political discourse in Taiwan. Like Park Geun-hye in South Korea, Tsai is also single and has all the time to devote to the country’s politics. Her defeat in the 2012 presidential poll made her mature to navigate in present day politics as she reflected for four years on what went wrong then so that course correction could be made this time. Her immediate challenges are to address the country’s stagnating economy, aging population and long-needed constitutional reform. The newly election legislature will convene in February 2016, while Tsai’s inauguration is scheduled for May.

New Challenges for China

The election took place amid concerns that the island’s economy was under threat from China and broad opposition to Beijing’s demands for political unification. Tsai’s election to the presidency poses new challenge to Beijing as Tsai has always been wary of China and its intentions. Before the election, there was growing public resistance to Beijing following the outgoing President Ma’s China-friendly policy. The opposition then felt that Taiwan’s sovereignty was being eroded by such pro-China policy of the KMT. Tsai is likely to have the support and cooperation of the smaller New Power Party (NPP) with five seats, which grew out of the protests, called the Sunflower Movement, though the NPP is unlikely to abandon its principles. Tsai is also assured of support from Hong Kong, where student leaders of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement have pledged closer ties with Taiwan. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong face similar dilemma – Taiwan on the sovereignty issue and Hong Kong on its future – and the China factor remains relevant to both. Since its return to China by Britain in 1997, Hong Kong’s status has been semi-autonomous. The peoples of Hong Kong enjoy freedoms unseen on the mainland and because of Beijing’s policy, the people of Hong Kong fear that those freedoms might be lost and therefore see common ground with the people of Taiwan.

Though Tsai pledged to maintain the “status quo of peace and stability” in relations with China, she said both sides have a responsibility to find a mutually acceptable means of interacting. She also added that Taiwan’s international space must be respected. Tsai is known to have refused to endorse the principle that Taiwan and China are parts of a single nation to be unified eventually. Beijing has made that its baseline for continuing negotiations that have produced a series of pacts on trade, transport and exchanges. What could be China’s immediate options? The most likely option for China could be to avoid any provocations and adopt a wait-and-see approach, while at the same time likely to use diplomatic and economy pressure if Tsai is seen as straying too far from its unification agenda. Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1885 to 1945 and split again from China amid civil war in 1949.

The South China Sea issue does not go away from the political radars of many Asian counties. Nearly a dozen countries have contending claims to some areas of the disputed mineral rich area to which China makes claim to the whole of it. The issue of freedom of navigation in the disputed area is too vexing. Like other claimant countries, Tsai wants for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. In the disputed South China Sea, China has built artificial islands that extend its reach. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines have competing claims in the sea, through which $5 trillion of trade passes annually. Tsai is vocal in articulating her views on this, saying that provocations and pressure from China would destabilise relations. Such a stance annoys Beijing. Tsai has a lot of experience dealing with China issues and people in Taiwan hope that she will be able to manage the relationship in a way that China will react not negatively.

Ties with Japan

What does Tsai’s victory mean to Japan in the context of Japan-Taiwan relations? Tsai committed to continue strengthening the island’s ties with Japan. Like Japan’s ties with South Korea and China, its ties with Taiwan are also not free from historical baggage as Taiwan was a colony of Japan for 60 years. Seen from that perspective, Japan’s relationship with Taipei is too complex. Japan-South Korea relations thawed somewhat following agreement early in January 2016 on the ‘comfort women’ issue, though scars do remain and difficult to erase because of its emotive nature. As regards relations between Japan and Taiwan, both have largely been able to transcend them and focus more on a stable strategic partnership, buttressed by trade and common values such as democracy and the rule of law.

Indeed, mutually beneficial economic ties remain the core of the Japan-Taiwan relationship. Taiwan is Japan’s fifth largest trading partner, while Japan is Taiwan’s second biggest partner after China. Japan is also engaged in free trade discussions with Taiwan, through the Japan-Taiwan Economic Partnership Committee. In view of the complex geopolitical considerations, Japan adheres to the so-called one-China policy but the same is unlikely to inhibit a traditional free trade agreement if both sides pursue formal negotiations. Japan is already the fourth-largest foreign investor in Taiwan, besides the largest source of foreign investment projects in the country. At the ground level, people-to-people ties remain strong with nearly 4.5 million visitors travelling between the two countries annually and this is a welcome sign.

Both have problems on the issue of ownership of the East China Sea, which the Japanese call Senkaku Islands and Chinese/Taiwanese call as Diaoyutai. Japan, Taiwan and China claim the islands as their own. The islands remain as an area of friction between Japan and Taiwan as it revives harmful memories of Japan’s occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. However, changing geostrategic situation in the region has propelled both to realise that solutions ought to be found to manage tensions based on cost-benefit analysis. With a view to do so, both have persevered to minimise tensions. For example, both reached a fishery arrangement in 2013 demarcating special exemption and special cooperation zones in the East China Sea. The agreement allows both Japan and Taiwan to fish cooperatively in a specified area without the fear of enforcement actions from their respective coast guards. Expectedly, China slammed this arrangement between Japan and Taiwan. From a strategic point of view, it was a victory for Japan as it was successful to wean away Taiwan to its fold on an issue where Taiwan found common ground with China. This would surely embolden Tsai to pursue her China policy.

Tsai’s Japan strategy seems to be clear and it is not difficult to speculate on the future of Japan-Taiwan ties with Tsai at the helm. Bilateral ties are likely to receive a boost. In October 2015, Tsai visited Japan as Taiwan’s official opposition leader. Earlier in July the same year, former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui’s had visited Japan, during which he addressed the Diet and indicated his nostalgia for the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan. That time, Lee voiced his belief that the Senkaku Islands likely belonged to Japan. Tsai is expected to adopt a more diplomatic approach to cross-Strait relations, though she is expected to face significant pressure from her supporters in the DPP who advocate a more hard-line approach to Taiwanese independence. The likely future of Taiwan-China relations during Tsai regime shall have an important impact on Japan. On its side, Tokyo will welcome if Tsai’s policies towards China is premised on a tougher policies towards Beijing. At the same time, the re-emergence of DPP in Taiwan’s political horizon shall encourage Japan to engage with Taiwan more vigorously so that the strategic ties are further strengthened, especially in soft security areas, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Foreign minister Fumio Kishida welcomed Isai’s victory and hoped to strengthen Japan’s relations with Taipei under her leadership. Indeed, forging closer ties with Taiwan is viewed as increasingly important to Japan amid the rise of an assertive China in the East and South China seas. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also places importance on Japan’s relations with Taiwan, and had held talks with Tsai in Taiwan in 2011 before he returned to power in 2012.

Impact on India

Besides the geopolitical implications of Isai’s election victory, what does it mean for India? The DPP was disenchanted with the predecessor government’s pro-China policy which did not help improve Taiwanese economy. The government of Isai is likely to choose a policy of greater engagement with other Asian nations. If Tsai prefers to revive Taiwan’s Go South policy it will complement India’s Act East push. In recent times many Taiwanese companies such as Foxxonn and Wistron Corp have committed to increase their investments in India. Taiwan’s strength lies in the manufacturing and managing global supply chains. Taiwan’s participation in India’s developmental goals will boost its Make in India initiative.

At a time when Chinese economy also started slowing down and Chinese labour has become expensive, Taiwanese companies have lost the competitive edge in the Chinese market. India could emerge as the best alternative choice for Taiwanese companies, who might prefer to shift their production bases to India. Deeper engagement would also facilitate greater institutional cooperation. It would be to India’s interest to respond to the new leadership’s choice for a robust approach to the outside world and leverage this for mutual gains.


Tsai has pledged a stronger Taiwan that is proud of its identity. Tsai’s elevation to the presidency is seen as a political earthquake as relations with Beijing is likely to be strained as Tsai would seek greater autonomy and independence for Taiwanese people, a departure from the predecessor government. Though Beijing is not expected to react more quickly, it has warned already the victorious party not to try for independence. Greater trouble in the future could not be ruled out. Chinese President Xi Jinping known for his assertive stances on regional and global issues has so far refrained from being too assertive with Taiwan. That might change now but China’s strategy would depend upon what actions Tsai prefers to choose and how its main ally, the US, reacts. Beijing might stick to its warning that it would resolutely oppose any bid by Taiwan to seek independence. Tsai’s main political play card that Taiwan is a self-ruling democracy is unlikely to be altered. Though Taiwan has never formally declared independence since splitting with China in 1949 after a civil war, Tsai is unlikely to accept that Beijing sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Tsai is aware of the consequences of unnecessarily provoking Beijing and is expected not to push through the traditional stance of her party for independence. It was therefore even after her massive victory, she promised to maintain the “status quo”, a message that would please its ally, the US, which would not like tension breaking out in another area of Northeast Asia. The threat of North Korea is already troubling the US, as also Japan, South Korea and China and Washington would feel uncomfortable if tensions flare up in the Taiwan sector. President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia policy would also come again under strain. On her part, Tsai would expect that Beijing refrains from coercive threats or efforts to tighten the noose on Taiwan diplomatically.

Taiwan has reason to worry about its status in the world. Its position on the global stage has been diminished under the shadow of China’s growing influence. Officially, Taiwan is recognised by only 22 countries. Even its most important ally, the US has unofficial ties after establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979. Therefore, for Isai, to restore Taiwan’s international space is a priority. This fundamental change in Isai’s foreign policy strategy could be the main reason for possible strain in ties with Beijing during her tenure in office. However, no immediate backlash from Beijing is likely; it cannot just afford such a course in policy, though it would monitor Isai’s every move. In an editorial, China’s Global Times warned that “Tsai can lead DPP out of the hallucinations of Taiwan independence, and contribute to the peaceful and common development between Taiwan and the mainland”. At the moment it is difficult to speculate how Taiwan-China relations would develop with Isai at the helm but it would be premature to expect any alarm bells to ring.

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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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