26.10.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Taiwan: The Presidential Election

tttIn a couple of months, 2016 may see drastic changes in the global “political map” unfolding on the world stage. In this context, the US presidential election scheduled for the beginning of November 2016 will be the year’s most significant event. Despite the growing trend for the creation of a multipolar world, the US continues to remain one of the leading global players, and possible changes in the US foreign policy (owing to the new “boss” in the White House) can significantly influence the layout of the global “political map.”

However, the results of the upcoming public elections in Taiwan (held once every four years) which will take place as early as January 2016, might shake the world’s foundation. The New Eastern Outlook has already touched upon this topic, but current developments call for another in-depth investigation of the issue.

So, at the beginning of next year, the president, vice-president, and two thirds of the unicameral parliament will be elected by direct vote (the majority of the remaining third of the deputies will be elected from party lists) in the territory with the key strategic location in the geopolitical “game,” which involves the leading Pacific Rim powers.

As it was the case with the election campaigns conducted in Taiwan in the last 15 years, the forthcoming election will be closely monitored by Beijing, Washington and Tokyo (and there will be attempts to influence the results in one way or another as well).

Since both main Taiwanese political forces (the Kuomintang of China (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)) have completely different preferences in terms of international policy, the “spectacle” which is “performed” on the island once every four years turns into one of the most serious problems for all three key participants of the regional “game.”

The situation around Taiwan has long been fraught, threatening to evolve into a conflict as dangerous (and seemingly unexpected) as the one in the South China Sea. It is not without reason that Taiwan (along with the South China Sea) was included in the geographical area which was recently analyzed by American RAND Сo in its evaluation of the balance of military powers of the US and the People’s Republic of China in the last 20years.

It is almost certain that the issue of the forthcoming elections in Taiwan was among the most important on the agenda of the United States-China summit held in September of this year, despite the fact that it has hardly been mentioned publically (unlike the issues of cybersecurity and environmental pollution).

There are no doubts regarding the preferences of Chinese leadership who will be watching the elections taking place in the “prodigal province,” which continuously put off its return to the bosom of its Motherland. A continuation of KMT’s rule, which has been in power since 2008, would suit Beijing. The leader of this party and the current President Ma Ying-jeou (who cannot run for a third term according to the Constitution) is a supporter of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which established the “One China principle.”

However, it should be pointed out that Beijing and Taipei construe the content of this document differently. Ultimately, Ma Ying-jeou is trying to deliberately protract Taiwan’s current informal status as a de facto independent state for as long as he can.

But from the perspective of Beijing, the political maneuvering by Ma Ying-jeou looks much better than the explicit denial of the aforementioned Consensus by the former leader of the DPP, Chen Shui-bian, who served as the president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008.

As for Washington, it has most certainly been “cheering” KMT throughout the past decade since back then there still was hope that China would be “constructively integrated” into the world order designed by the US. That is why the US did not need a source of tension in Taiwan, which could have emerged because of strained China-Taiwan relations.

Incidentally, it can probably be speculated that the “appropriate” services of both the US and China made equal contributions to Chen Shui-bian ending up behind bars on corruption charges, which disgraced the DPP and assured KMT’s victory in the 2008 election.

Washington’s current preferences as far as the participants of the forthcoming Taiwan elections are concerned are rather unclear. It can only be assumed that as China continues to evolve into US’s chief geopolitical opponent (which was the reason for the American international policy to make a “turn toward Asia”), the US will be less and less cautious in dealing with the “sensitive” aspects of the Chinese statehood.

Therefore, Beijing can hardly expect that Americans will support KMT, or count on their criticism toward DPP. But even if the US still favored KMT, it would, most probably, do no good to try to “back” this party in those few months left before the elections.

At the end of August, several probes of public opinion were conducted. Their results clearly displayed that the popularity index of the current leader of the DPP, Tsai Ing-wen, is twice as high as that of her potential competitors. Around 40% of respondents supported her, while only 20% expressed preference for the KMT candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, nominated in summer of 2015. The same percentage of Taiwanese supported James Soong, a representative of the People First Party.

Therefore, even today it can be confidently predicted that KMT will lose in the elections race (this party faced a crushing defeat at the regional elections last year. And it is highly unlikely that the situation can be remedied even if there is an urgent replacement of the KMT candidate.

Thus, the “involved” parties will not be able to draw any preliminary conclusions until they hear Tsai Ing-wen’s first statements and see her deeds after she is elected to the highest administrative position. So far, the statements she’s been making while visiting foreign countries during her pre-election campaign (and these tours are also perceived as a “showing of a potential president”) cannot but alarm Beijing.

During her first two-week trip to the US in June 2015, she addressed many issues, but the core undertone of her speeches was the idea that Taiwan was looking to develop relations with both major regional powers.

Speaking before a representative foreign audience in Taipei, Tsai Ing-wen more clearly defined her own perception of the “future Taiwan.” She promised that in case of her election, she would, alongside her other pre-election promises, strive to strengthen Taiwan-US and Taiwan-Japan relations as well as try to reduce the island’s economic dependence on the “Mainland,” including via its accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And at the beginning of October, Tsai Ing-wen set out to develop relations with Japan, by undertaking a four-day “friendship tour” (as she herself called it) to this country where she participated in a number of important meetings with representatives of Japanese political and business communities.

The outgoing president of Taiwan expressed his disposition in a speech he delivered on October 10, 2015 on the anniversary of one of the major holidays celebrated on both shores of the Taiwan Strait. The beginning of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911–1912 that ended the reign of monarchy and laid the foundation for the modern China was observed on that day.

His keynote speech sounded like a testament and valedictories to the future leadership of Taiwan. Ma Ying-jeou in particular said, “The current status quo didn’t just drop out of the sky. It cannot be taken for granted. Seven years ago, our ties with China were caught in a vicious cycle, but we’ve turned it into a virtuous cycle”.

His note that in case of digression from the provisions of the “1992 Consensus” any statements asserting the interest in the maintenance of the status quo in the Taiwan strait will “turn into empty talk” sounded like a clear warning to his successors.

The nearest future will demonstrate the degree of effectiveness of this warning to the departing president of Taiwan.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.