President Tsai Ing-wen vs. Beijing: Will She Maintain the Status Quo?

On January 16, 2016, the people of Taiwan went to the polls for what was the sixth direct election in their country’s history. It was also an election of firsts. The winner—the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—had only their second victory in seven decades’ worth of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT), the nationalist party that had ruled mainland China until the Communist takeover. Additionally, the DPP now holds the first non-KMT majority in history. Most importantly, the Taiwanese people elected their first female President, Tsai Ing-wen.

Why the DPP won seems fairly simple: voter dissolution with slow economic growth and the nation’s relation with China. The implications of this victory for Taiwanese-Chinese relations, and consequently American-Asian relations, are still up-in-the-air.

The Democratic Progressive Party is often described as more pro-independence than the Kuomintang. China and Taiwan’s troubling legal situation, in which both nations’ governments claim to be the legal government of both Chinas, has produced a divide in Taiwan. The KMT and its allies assert that there will be a reunification of China one day, but on the KMT’s terms only. The DPP camp, however, believes that Taiwan ought to make slow steps towards complete independence. Currently, even though the vast majority of Taiwanese do not want immediate, legally-specified independence, the DPP has pushed for it in the past. With such divisive opinions in the public at large, it is clear that Taiwan’s path forward now largely depends on Tsai Ing-wen’s political leadership.

Although Tsai has promised to maintain the status quo—the aforementioned dual claiming of the right “China”—the mainland government has reacted forcefully to her election. Beijing has already urged the international community and Tsai to maintain the status quo. Additionally, many Chinese people have begun to troll Tsai’s Facebook page, and Chinese state media media has released pictures of military exercises. Given the president-elect’s promise, it is very unlikely that Taiwan will strike out for independence; however, Tsai has been vague about specific policies she might change or introduce vis-á-vis China. What is possible, though, is that Taiwan may begin to disengage from economic interactions with the mainland or attempt to counter its actions. Up until recently, Taiwanese economic growth has piggy-backed on China’s, as Taiwan offered the mainland highly-educated, high-tech labor to complement China’s manufacturing labor. Whatever the president-elect may choose, a move away from China is paramount, so that the island nation can not only trade with more partners, but also decouple itself from an increasingly weak economy.

How might Beijing respond to Taiwan changing its narrative? Richard Bush, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, highlighted several of the mainland’s possible reactions. According to him, China is most likely to impose short-term costs or punishments on the island such as stopping formal negotiations with Taiwan, curtailing Taiwan’s international presence by pressuring the international community or complicate the cross-strait business environment to pressure the business lobby, blaming Tsai for being uncooperative, and hoping that voters buckle and shift parties. The reason behind causing a voter-shift is that, though being more independent-minded is not acceptable to Beijing, it is unfeasible for China to force a regime change in Taiwan. So, by painting the DPP as anti-status-quo, the Chinese government might be able to convince the Taiwanese to vote for the KMT next election. Other reactions include one in which Beijing’s harsh words are simply bluffs, where it has no intention of actually sticking to them and actively works to better relations with Taiwan. In another scenario, Beijing might try and punish the island with no hope of causing a voter-shift.

Since both nations are key interests to the United States, the American reaction is likely to have far-reaching implications. Of note is that the 2016 election is the first in which the United States has not implicitly endorsed the KMT. If Bush’s likely scenario does come to pass, and China freezes cross-strait dialogue, America will be forced to return to its old policy of deterrence—i.e., urging all parties to exercise caution and ensuring both sides that the US remains committed to each. Although deterrence may strain relations in the triangular relationship, China’s inability to unilaterally alter the status quo forces both Beijing and Taipei to come to an agreement, regardless of the terms of a strained status quo. Although deterrence is not easy, it has historical precedent, which will ease the process. The best situation would be the one in which  China is bluffing, allowing both nations to come to an agreement.

What could a worst-case condition look like? Tsai may—if she could convince the nation to follow her—push Taiwan legally further from the status quo. If that happens, Beijing’s reaction is sure to be forceful and may include complete economic and diplomatic disengagement. Although this situation is highly unlikely, a complete deterioration of ties is the fearful backdrop that the US, China, and Taiwan move forward after this historic election.  

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