Taiwan ready to join the world’s democratic powers

Author: J Bruce Jacobs, Monash University

Consolidated democracies in Asia are rare. India and Japan democratised after World War II, and Taiwan and South Korea did so from the late 1980s. Countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Mongolia have made important first steps but democracy remains fragile. Taiwan has just undergone its third change of government since 2000. Unfortunately for the Taiwanese people, the administrations of presidents Chen Shui-bian (2000–2008) and Ma Ying-jiu (2008–2016) promised much but delivered little.

Supporters of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, cheer as she declares victory in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan, 16 January 2016.

In the 16 January elections, Tsai Ing-wen, the presidential nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won 56 per cent of the vote in a race with three tickets. Tsai led the DPP to win an absolute majority in the legislature, gaining 68 of 113 seats. This is the first time that the DPP has controlled the legislature and promises that Tsai will lead a unified government.

Tsai was also the DPP candidate for president in 2012, but she was a mediocre campaigner and lost the election. Tsai has improved and become a much better candidate and president-elect. She significantly broadened her scope of advisers and now listens to what they have to say. She has also made some excellent appointments, as seen in her widely praised vice-presidential running mate and nominations for the legislature.

Tsai’s landslide victory can be attributed to widespread dissatisfaction among voters with current economic policies. Growth has been limited and incomes have remained low. The government hasn’t taken care of Taiwan’s poor and needy.

Voters were also unhappy with the government’s emphasis on China. Most Taiwanese feel Taiwan is overly dependent economically on China, yet the government tied its future to the mainland.

Most foreign reports on the elections have focused on how the outcome might affect relations with China. This misses the point. Most people in Taiwan want the country to have friendly relations with China, but they also want to maintain their independence. The major tensions in cross-Strait relations stem from China’s flawed claims that Taiwan belongs to it. The future of relations between China and Taiwan depends on the attitudes of China’s leaders, not Taiwan’s.

Taiwan has been under the rule of a Han Chinese regime based in China for only four years in its history, during 1945–1949. These were the worst years in Taiwan’s history, as the Chinese colonial regime of Chiang Kai-shek repressed Taiwan and killed more than 20,000 Taiwanese during the 1947 democracy movement.

As Taiwan has democratised, it has also decolonialised. Fewer people identify as being ‘Chinese’ while more and more see themselves as being ‘Taiwanese’ — which explicitly excludes any identification with China.

With democracy, the great majority of Taiwanese people have made their views clear in this latest election, bringing in a new Taiwan-centric government. This means that any new government — and opposition too — will be Taiwan-centric. The question then for the Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan as a dictatorship from 1945 to 1988 and then from 2008 to 2016, is can it reform sufficiently to attract Taiwanese voters? If not, it will be thrown into the dustbin of history and a new Taiwan-centric opposition will emerge.

Such an opposition might derive from a split in the DPP based on socially progressive versus socially conservative programs. The small New Power Party, which gained five legislative seats on the basis of its strong Taiwan orientation and youth appeal, might join such a new opposition.

Taiwan is an important middle power with a population equal to that of Australia’s and a territory larger than two-fifths of the world’s nations. It has an advanced economy and a substantial military.

As China has become more assertive in regional territorial disputes, the democratic powers of the world have established even closer links. The leaders of the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and India have been meeting frequently with one another. Taiwan, an important world middle power, should seek to join these democratic powers and the democratic powers should welcome the addition of Taiwan to their group.

For Taiwan, such links would provide political, economic and security advantages. For the nations of the democratic world, the addition of Taiwan would add only add to their strengths.

J Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University.

This article was first published here in The Age and also here in the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

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