The elections to local authorities in Taiwan, that took place on November 29 of this year are seemingly a minor event on the scale of the political game unfolding in the Asia Pacific region. However, by each of such events (and especially by them as a group) both its current state and possible development can be seen, as well as the behaviour of key players in the near future. All this is due to Taiwan’s place in the regional political game.
In addition to the archipelagos of the South China Sea, the islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu, and the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan is one of the most sensitive areas of the APR, where the interests of the leading regional players intersect. Together these areas to a certain extent can be described as a modern “Balkans” of not only the regional, but also the global game.
Everything that is happening within the political life in Taiwan is being closely watched not only from Beijing, where the “solely domestic” nature of the Taiwan issue is publicly declared, but also from Washington and Tokyo. Both main opponents of China (especially the latter) will in no case accept the success (increasingly hypothetical) of the current strategic course of the “mainland” on political assimilation in one form or another of Taiwan to China.
This builds on the development of a variety of primarily economic ties with the “renegade province” which in the end must make sure that it benefits from the unification with China. However, the policies of both major Taiwanese parties, that is the current ruling party, the Kuomintang, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), although diverging in important details, are aimed at maintaining the current status of the island’s de facto independence.
These “details” are mainly due to the fact that the Kuomintang between 1919 and 1949 led the Republic of China, the predecessor of the PRC, while the DPP is a purely Taiwanese party. The basis of the ideology of the latter is the thesis of the identity of Taiwan and Taiwanese, which makes conversations about the possibility of political affiliation of the island to “the other State”, China, pointless.
However, in the Kuomintang which for more than 60 years was “based” in Taiwan, experts note a process of “Taiwanization” which makes the party thesis on a unified China pro forma.
Nevertheless, the trend toward further strengthening the development of mutually beneficial relations with the “mainland”, clearly conspicuous after the return to power of the Kuomintang in 2008 and the accession of its leader Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan, was the subject of harsh criticism from the DPP. We are talking about “strengthening” because the process was launched at the beginning of the last decade by the DPP itself which in this case constantly emphasized that the independence of the government of Taiwan is not negotiable.
The current unsteadiness of the Kuomintang’s position is due to the fact that the enormous benefits Taiwan reaps from the course of developing economic relations with China are the average temperature in the hospital. The main beneficiaries are the employees (mainly senior and middle managers) of the Taiwanese companies that do business in China. The lower class of the Taiwanese do not receive any benefits from this course.
For this reason, among the issues raised by critics on the course of Kuomintang leadership toward the development of relations with China, in addition to the “threat to the sovereignty” of Taiwan, there are accusations of widening the gap between rich and poor, which is a purely social dimension.
In March of 2014 thousands of demonstrations in Taipei, designated “the movement of sunflowers”, did not allow the Taiwan parliament to ratify the treaty with China to liberalize bilateral trade in services. According to Taiwanese experts, this “movement has a huge scale and reflects the views of the younger generation” of the island.
The dissatisfaction of the lower class and the political activity of young people in Taiwan predetermined the heavy defeat of the Kuomintang in the recent local elections. Of the 22 cities and municipalities the party will retain control of only 6 (before the election it supervised 15 municipalities). The DPP won in 13 municipalities and independent candidates won in three. Especially important is the loss by the Kuomintang of the post of the capital’s mayor and the head of the key municipality of Taichung.
The preliminary results of the elections have already forced Taiwanese Prime Minister Jiang Yi-huah to submit his resignation on the same day. Ma Ying-jeou urged the supporters of the Kuomintang to “wipe away their tears and unite”.
Experts are unanimous in the opinion that the elections are a test for the upcoming 2016 presidential election. One of the leaders of the DPP used the expression “a skirmish before the presidential Battle”.
Even today it is evident that in 2016 the victory of the Kuomintang will at least not be as confident as it was in 2012, when Ma Ying-jeou was elected to the presidency in Taiwan for a second time.
As expected, China very cautiously responded to a similar outcome in the very recent Taiwanese elections. The very next day from the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council a statement was issued expressing the hope that “our compatriots on the other side of the Taiwan Strait will protect the fruits of development, won by hard work, of the relations between the two sides“.
The commentary by the Japanese newspaper “Mainichi Shimbun” which provided this statement draws attention to the assumption that the outcome of the recent Taiwanese elections could affect the recent unrest in Hong Kong (which have yet to come to a close), which Taiwan has “closely watched”.
On the past Taiwanese elections one can hardly expect any official comment from Tokyo and Washington, as the capitals of the two main opponents of China maintain external diplomatic politesse regarding the Taiwan issue as a whole. At its heart is the thesis of Japan and the US recognizing Beijing as the sole representative of China.
What “feelings” they are experiencing in connection with the above elections in the political establishment in Japan and the US, we can only guess with varying degrees of plausibility. The assessment of the outcome of the elections in both countries will be directly dependent on the latest trends in their policies toward China. And here there are important nuances.
It seems that the weather in Japan-China relations after a brief period of calm at the last APEC may again become stormy. This is confirmed by the “levelling” nature of remarks at the Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida, made the day after the first meeting “at the top” in the last 3 years, which occurred on the sidelines of the forum, and another incident near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that occurred a week after the meeting.
In the US (especially in Congress) the pro-Taiwan lobby has always had serious weight. But in recent years the US policy toward China has demonstrated a trend toward reducing prospects for direct confrontation with China “on unimportant issues” and strengthening the role of allies (especially Japan) at the forefront of countering the “China threat”. Both in Washington and Beijing (but in each capital for their own reasons) they feel quite comfortable under conditions of the Kuomintang staying in power in Taiwan.
A strengthened position of the advocates for state independence in the “rebellious province” of China, which may be secured by victory (now quite likely) in the next presidential elections, could exacerbate the situation in the Taiwan Strait. In this case, Washington will be hard pressed to avoid being drawn into a confrontation between its “banks”. And it is clear on whose side, and against whom.
Finally, the “related” issues of a superficially very local event in Taiwan show that the prospect of the situation getting out of control of the leading players in a region-wide political game is not far-fetched. The game has begun to develop as if by itself, and this is the most alarming signal from the local elections that just took place in Taiwan.