President, centre for china analysis and strategy
Taiwan’s national election results, which were announced on January 12 and swept Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a major victory, have been discouraging for Beijing. Prominent factors contributing to the DPP’s victory were China’s threats to Taiwan, but even more was the impact on the Taiwanese people of the unceasing popular anti-China protests in Hong Kong. The results will impact China, with its President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ — envisaging ‘reunification’ by 2021 or even 2049 — now possibly becoming a distant prospect. The results could have wider repercussions in the region.
Beijing will now have to view the DPP, which it has constantly tried to marginalise, as one with a sizeable following that contests China’s ‘one country, two systems’ policy and overtly challenges its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. Beijing would need to accept that ‘Taiwan identity’ and nationalism are both important considerations for the Taiwan people. With its mandate for a new four-year term, the DPP can be expected to further consolidate its position. Tsai Ing-wen’s policy of not yielding to China on issues of independence, while avoiding an open breach, has shown Taiwan that this is viable. She has shown, too, that its appeal overrides that of the better economic prospects that could be anticipated from a compromise with Beijing. Beijing will probably now try to ‘befriend’ political parties other than the KMT, as well as sections of Taiwan society apart from China-dependent businesses. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will step up ‘united front’ activities in Taiwan.
Official Chinese reactions suggest that Beijing is not yet reconciled to DPP victory and has still to reorient its policy towards Taiwan. The nationalistic Beijing-based Global Times cautioned that the US ‘will get up to more little tricks on the Taiwan question in the coming years,’ but insisted that ‘China should firmly maintain the one-China principle and…. strive to hold the initiative of the Taiwan Strait in our own hands.’ Outlining the possible contours of the new policy, it asserted that China should not allow the situation of the strait to be decided by the US and Taiwan. It pointed out that even ‘Taiwan independence’ forces believe ‘the comprehensive strength of the mainland has been increasing, we have enough ability to contain Taiwan independence.’ It said China must ‘plan to crack down on Tsai’s new provocative actions, including imposing military pressure, which is an unbearable option for Taiwan authorities’.
There have been adequate indications that as China becomes militarily stronger, its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increasingly feels that an offensive against Taiwan would be successful. President Xi Jinping has said he would not like to leave the ‘reunification’ to successor generations. In April and August 2019, PLA fighter jets, for the first time in 20 years, crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait. Aircraft carriers similarly broke precedent and sailed through the strait in June and December. In September, a Chinese government-backed Twitter account responded to a post by the Taiwan President saying: ‘Once we have dealt with Hong Kong, we will settle the scores with Taiwan, military unification is unavoidable, we’ll keep the island ….’ Reflecting apprehensions about a forcible reunification, a member of President Tsai Ing-wen’s previous National Security Council observed, ‘We can debate whether it’s 2020 or 2022, but we know it’s not 2049.’
Taiwan’s military capabilities are limited with mountain tunnels at two air bases providing safe shelter to over 200 aircraft, but it is developing advanced sea-mining capabilities, building fast attack craft and working to get meaningful assurances from the US. Tsai Ing-wen has also sought to build Taiwan’s defence capability, with the defence budget expected to reach $11.9bn in 2020.
Beijing has kept to psychological warfare, but will, however, try and intensify diplomatic pressure, including by shrinking Taiwan’s diplomatic space.
Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election comes at an inopportune time for Xi Jinping. It coincides with the protests in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region where, 23 years after reverting to China, the people are challenging Beijing’s right to govern Hong Kong and the legitimacy of the CCP. US-China friction is growing as the two begin to disengage. The crisis caused by the rapidly spreading coronavirus has additionally provoked sharp public criticism of Xi Jinping’s rule. Whether these will give impetus to the latent discontent in China or the unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet is unclear. Beijing’s failure to resolve these problems will make it difficult for China to realise a ‘peaceful reunification’.
As Tsai Ing-wen commences her second term, it is likely that she will initiate ‘quiet’ contacts with the US to shore Taiwan’s position which will put pressure on China. Taiwan’s Vice President-elect Lai Ching-teh is scheduled to attend the national prayer breakfast in Washington DC. The US administration has separately signalled its disenchantment with China. The US Secretary of State, during discussions recently with the British Foreign Secretary, stated, ‘The Chinese Communist Party presents the central threat of our times.’ A number of Senators separately wrote, urging the WHO to invite Taiwan to become an observer. On January 31, an aircraft monitoring website, Aircraft Spots, disclosed that a US B-52H bomber entered mainland China and the East China Sea region of Taiwan before flying back to Guam.
To reduce Taiwan’s dependence on China, Tsai Ing-wen will re-energise her ‘Southbound Policy’. This presents India with an opportunity to consider initiating economic and commercial contacts with Taiwan. It would result in foreign investments in sectors that will upgrade Indian industry and job creation.
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