What a Tsai presidency could mean for cross-Strait relations

Author: Mark Harrison, University of Tasmania

On 16 January Taiwan will elect a new president and legislative assembly. The presidential candidates for the two main parties are Eric Chu for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and Tsai Ing-wen for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Tsai’s polling numbers are more than 20 points above Chu’s. Barring an extraordinary turnaround in the KMT’s fortunes, Tsai will win a crushing victory. With the presidency seemingly a foregone conclusion, the DPP is looking to take a majority in the Legislative Assembly for the first time, giving Tsai and the DPP unprecedented policy leverage.

The strong position of Tsai and the DPP is unsurprising given the deep electoral malaise that has weighed upon the KMT for some years. The current KMT administration of Ma Ying-jeou, which has been in power since 2008, has placed the relationship with mainland China at the centre of its policies and socio-cultural outlook. This has proved politically costly.

Taiwan’s economy has benefited from China’s growth. But as this growth has slowed, the Ma government’s failure to address Taiwan’s structural economic problems has become harder to hide. China has not been the solution to falling real wages, unaffordable housing, rising income inequality and entrenched energy subsidies so massive that they distort Taiwan’s economic structure. Taiwan ended 2015 in recession.

The emphasis on the China relationship by the Ma government has also run counter to potent political and cultural narratives in Taiwan about identity and democracy that have motivated Taiwan’s political development since the Japanese colonial era (1895–1945) and the 1947 uprising. Today, Taiwanese identity and the aspiration for self-determination are the levers of Taiwanese politics. They have been galvanised by the divisiveness of the KMT government’s focus on mainland China and its failure to be transparent in its dealings with Beijing. This has played into deep anxieties about the legacy of authoritarianism on Taiwan, KMT cronyism and the influence of the People’s Republic of China.

The KMT’s crisis reached an apotheosis in the student occupation of the legislative assembly in 2014. During the Sunflower Movement, hundreds of young Taiwanese reasserted the centrality of democratic self-determination in Taiwanese political life. The goals of the movement were validated in local and municipal elections at the end of 2014. And the KMT’s disastrous showing set the tone for the current elections.

Even the meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in November served only to confirm the electorate’s view of the KMT. For Ma, it was the culmination of his presidency. For much of the electorate, it was the outcome of opaque negotiations and acquiescent language spoken on their behalf towards Beijing.

Yet, while the KMT government may have overstayed its welcome domestically, it has looked very different internationally. If the Ma–Xi meeting confirmed the voters’ view that the KMT had lost sight of Taiwan’s democratic ideals and their everyday concerns, internationally it looked like an historic moment in cross-Strait relations and a step towards resolving one of modern history’s longest-standing ideological conflicts.

The distance between the domestic and international viewpoints on Taiwan is one of its enduring challenges. Should Tsai be elected president, managing these two very different perspectives will be a key task for an incoming Tsai administration. As president, she will need to take heed of the international view of Taiwan and communicate the reasons why the electorate have voted for a more circumspect relationship with Beijing.

Tsai’s task will be complicated by memories of the last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, which still rankle foreign ministries around the world. At the same time, the United States and Japan have both become far warier of China’s assertive regional policies and a Taiwanese government that is less accommodating towards Beijing may suit their policy responses and leadership inclinations.

When Tsai visited both the United States and Japan in 2015 she took a message of continuity and predictability in cross-Strait relations. But she has not openly endorsed the policies of the current government or committed to the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ on the One China principle. Tsai was warmly received in Washington and Tokyo. Even in Beijing, policymakers seem to have accepted the inevitability of a DPP government.

In the context of US–China manoeuvring and Taiwan’s extremely constrained international space, a Tsai government will look to strengthen regional relationships to balance cross-Strait relations. Taiwan may well find common ground with the many economies in the region that are trying to manage the deleterious effects of China’s slowing economy. Regional bilateral free trade agreements and Taiwan’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are policy areas that are likely to receive more attention.

But the actions of a Tsai government will be framed by domestic politics. The electorate will bring high expectations for transparency and rigorous democratic oversight of relations with mainland China and the region. A well-organised and well-informed cohort of young activists will hold Tsai to account. This will mean that the often opaque world of foreign and trade policy will be subjected to an unusual level of scrutiny.

From an international viewpoint, policymaking in Taipei by a government that will base its legitimacy on its openness to public debate and political activism may appear less reassuring after years of accommodating policy under Ma. But such an approach is aligned with the trajectory of Taiwan’s modern political history. And the policy outcomes it delivers will ultimately stand on stronger foundations of political legitimacy.

Mark Harrison is a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania and Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University.