Tsai’s record victory moves Taiwan further from Xi’s grasp

Bloomberg Taipei/Beijing | Updated on January 12, 2020 Published on January 12, 2020

Incumbent Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to her supporters after her election victory at a rally, outside the Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, January 11, 2020.   -  REUTERS

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s goal of bringing Taiwan under his control moved further out of his grasp as the islands voters re-elected a president who has vowed to defend its sovereignty, raising questions about the success of China’s Taiwan strategy.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory over China-friendly opposition challenger Han Kuo-yu to clinch a second term in elections on Saturday. Her victory, an emphatic public mandate with a record number of votes, is the fourth time since 2000 that her Democratic Progressive Party — which advocates for Taiwan’s formal independence — has secured the presidency.

The DPP also held onto its majority in the legislature, albeit with a reduced margin.

Tsai has vowed that Taiwan will never be unified with China as long she is in power. Meanwhile Han, of the Kuomintang party, had struggled to find a consistent message on China. Taiwan’s complex relationship with China is the main political fissure in its society, though issues like wages, housing and air quality were also important to voters.

In a victory address in Taipei, Tsai said voters had put democratic values into practice and that the world should see Taiwan as a partner, not an issue. She urged Beijing to resume cross-strait dialogues and negotiations as equals, and said she hoped the two sides could build a sustainable and healthy approach for exchange.

“This election is about having democracy and freedom, and not having democracy and freedom,” she said.

Tsai was swept to victory by a resilient economy and stock market and protests against China’s grip in neighbouring Hong Kong, which have confronted Taiwanese voters with the potential perils of closer ties with the mainland.

“I voted for Tsai Ing-wen because I don’t want to lose Taiwan’s freedom,” Rita Huang, a 34-year-old public servant, said after voting in Taipei.

The China question

Beijing has stepped up its strategy of offering an array of threats and incentives in the hope of persuading Taiwanese to begin the process of unifying with its giant neighbour in the four years since Tsai first came to power, and voters in the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy faced pressure to pick sides in a global battle for influence between the US and China. But the island’s inhabitants have proven largely immune to China’s coercion.

“China has failed to shift public opinion in favour of eventual unification, and many of its coercive measures have been counterproductive, pushing the Taiwanese people away,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who studies Taiwan and Chinese politics. “The more that China has attempted to impose a Chinese identity on Taiwan, the more that the people have identified as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese.”

Chinese president Xi has reaffirmed his desire to use the same one country, two systems framework by which Beijing governs Hong Kong to bring the democracy of 23 million people back under its control. Tsai rejects the prospect, and her victory on Saturday likely means four more years of no talks between the two sides on one of the region’s main potential flash points, a disappointment for those who had cast their votes for Han.

“I support closer and more peaceful ties with China and I am against independence for Taiwan,” Betty Chang, a 60-year-old accountant, said at a Taipei polling station. “If we choose independence, China will attack us for sure.”

No contact

A Japanese colony for the first half of the 20th century, Taiwan came under the control of China’s Nationalist government after the Second World War. It became a refuge for Chiang Kai-shek and his troops as they fled the Communists at the end of China’s civil war.

China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, cut off all contact with Tsai’s government after she declined to endorse the ‘One China’ policy following her inauguration in 2016.

Beijing has since sought to further isolate Taipei diplomatically by convincing smaller nations in the Pacific, Africa and Central America to switch sides.

Xi said early last year that Taiwan was central to his plans to rejuvenate China in a speech that closely tied the Taiwan issue to his pledge to make China a global power by 2050. “China must and will be united, which is an inevitable requirement for the historical rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era,” he told a gathering in Beijing to mark the 40th anniversary of a landmark overture to Taipei after the US and China established relations.

Published on January 12, 2020
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