by Evita Liagka
The outcome of the January 2020 Taiwanese elections surprised no one. With participation climbing to an unprecedented seventy-seven per cent of the electorate and results strongly affirmative of the polling data, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by Tsai Ing-wen was hailed as the winner of the procedures, with the Beijing-backed party Kuomintang (KMT) ranking second and the People First Party (PFP) third. Six months prior to the general elections, the DPP had managed to turn the tables on its political opponents, gaining momentum from the outburst of the Hong Kong protests, the Sino-US frictions, and the outstanding performance of the Taiwanese economy.
Through its most recent re-election, the DDP secured its hold on power for another four years, thereby signaling, according to several analysts, a period of continuity for the island’s politics. Arguably, fewer have commented on the subtle and unsubtle changes that Taiwanese politics are undergoing, that reveal a much more complex picture within the broader context of East-Asian politics and regional security.
On the one hand, the DPP’s second-time victory could promulgate stability on many levels. At a micro- level, stability appears to ensue from the consolidation of power within the party itself. With calls for sovereignty, democracy, social reforms, and economic growth placed at the heart of its campaign, the DPP projected the powerful image and drive of a unified party that has previously proven that it can stick to its promises. At a macro-level however, any drastic changes concerning its sovereignty and independence triggered by Taipei are unlikely to transpire in cross-strait relations. After winning the elections one possibility is that the DPP will hereafter adopt a more moderate stance in comparison with the one its electoral campaign emanated, since that extra rhetoric push that helped it gain votes is no longer needed. Another possibility, which could be seen as complementary rather than necessarily mutually exclusive to the first, is that since it has already secured its position for the time being the DPP is not under pressure to either ameliorate or deteriorate Taiwan’s relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Alternatively, it may choose to adopt a harder line towards Beijing. This could be the case if, in the years to come, younger and more radical politicians striving for Taiwanese independence (臺獨) take hold in the decision-making of the party, narrowing the room left for Tsai’s manipulations, pressuring for de jure independence of the island state. This new wave of politicians includes numerous activists linked to the 2014 Sunflower Movement (a mass student protest against KMT’s passing of a cross-strait service trade agreement between Taiwan and China), such as Lin Fei-fan, the current Deputy Secretary-General of DPP. Either way, it is unlikely that Taipei will adopt an extremely radical approach and declare de jure independence in the years to come, since the majority of Taiwanese have expressed their unwillingness to back-up policies that would lead to imminent, direct confrontation with the People’s Republic and their preference to support the maintenance of the status quo “in a broader sense”.
From China’s perspective dramatic policy alterations are also unlikely. Going through an extremely challenging period, the Beijing acknowledges that unifying with Taiwan by employing force is not the optimum scenario, despite Xi’s pledges to use “all necessary means”. Within the US-Taiwan-scope, China would be discouraged to use raw military force against Taiwan, unless its regime security suffered serious threats. Even in the most remote scenario of coercive, forceful reunification and non-interference from the U.S., the maintenance of power would come at such preventive cost that would suffice to render this option improbable. It is, thus, more probable that Taiwan will remain a part of the US-Taiwan-China triangle and a forceful reunification or even a rapprochement with China will not materialise any time soon.
It is worth noting that, even though the Hong Kong issue is indeed weighing down as a factor that ought to be taken into account when assessing the dynamics between the US, Taiwan, and China, any further comparisons between Hong Kong and Taiwan would be simplistic and pointless. Hong Kong comprises part of China’s sovereign territory while Taiwan does not. Still, it is undeniable that the way Beijing has handled the Hong Kong tensions so far has influenced Taiwanese politics by putting a big question mark over the robustness of the “one country, two systems” model, something that has not escaped the Taiwanese public opinion. Under that light, all aforementioned scenarios envision the status quo of Taiwanese politics mostly unperturbed.
On the other hand, such continuities should not be overplayed. Firstly, continuity does not necessarily mean stability. Rapidly losing allies to Beijing, communications with which are on a standstill since the DPP was first elected in 2016, and facing delays regarding recently US-approved arms’ deliveries, Taipei may need to partly reconsider its strategies to ensure its security in the near future. Yet in this respect, the prospect of diplomatic isolation remains dubious, if the powerful unofficial relations with the US and Japan are taken into the equation. Secondly, albeit the focus may currently be on continuities, changes in the island’s politics are not negligible – they are, in fact, quite substantial.
With regards to inner politics, the KMT has been grappling with organisational problems, as well as a mentality-orientation dilemma that became apparent during its campaigning and which may prove pivotal both for the party as well as Taiwanese politics. This dilemma boils down to the question of whether the KMT should continue to be a populist party or go back to be an elitist one. Currently undergoing a metamorphosis that seemingly points towards the first direction, the main opposition party very recently elected Johnny Chiang as its new chair, who promised to recuperate KMT’s image within a year’s time. In his campaign for party leadership Chiang mentioned that the “1992 consensus” on “one China” is no longer working, implying that the KMT might opt to sway away from its overtly pro-China stance which left it bereft of votes in this year’s elections.
With regard to cross-strait relations, it is rather doubtful that any changes occurring are going to be major ones. However, some developments may unfold on China’s part under the growing pressure stemming from its pursuit of the 2021 and 2049 centennial goals earmarking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the 20th Party Congress in 2022 and the commemoration of the PRC’s hundredth year of existence in 2049. Furthermore, whether he is to remain in power or not, Xi Jinping should be able to provide an irreproachable record by 2023 to seal the ending second term of his presidency. This includes, among other promised deliverables, to address the Taiwanese issue “efficiently” in order to achieve “great power” status, as stipulated by the second centennial goal. Alongside these, Beijing is currently presented with multifaceted challenges – the Coronavirus outbreak, the Hong Kong tensions and US-China trade wars seemingly being the most urgent of them. Such stress tests will probably counterbalance the reunification efforts, putting them on hold, at least temporarily, by monopolising the mainland’s attention.
On Taiwan’s part, some developments in cross-strait relations have already begun to take place after the pre-election passage of the Anti-infiltration Act, which aims at administering the influence of external hostile forces in internal affairs, obviously targeting China. During the Taiwanese elections the mainland consistently attempted to infiltrate the island’s politics, by affecting public opinion both via mass media, such as the China Group Television channels, and social media, such as Facebook, reasonably arising security concerns. After the elections, insofar as the DPP further promotes the Act, Sino-Taiwanese relations are about to grow more tense, since Beijing will be left with fewer soft-line options.
Entering another term, the DPP continues to lead Taipei’s policies in a period that finds China considerably distracted by the various other challenges it needs to confront, following the recent Coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan’s new challenge is to maintain DPP’s legitimacy with the new competition faced by KMT’s reformist policies. With time bought from a distracted China, Taiwan’s political trajectory in the near future should be one that could continue to maintain its national sovereignty and democratic integrity.
Evita Liagka completed her undergraduate degree in International, European and Area studies at the Panteion University of Athens, where she specialised in International Relations and Political Economy. She is currently a postgraduate at King’s College London, studying China & Globalisation at the Lau China Institute. Her research interests include urban and spatial politics, and the respective roles of civil society and environmental micro-governance, with a focus on China.