Shadow Government

Five Lessons from Taiwan’s Elections

The ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) suffered a "thumpin" in Taiwan’s recent regional and municipal elections. Early indications point to one of the more decisive victories by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of all time. For example, now some 60 percent of Taiwan’s population is governed by a DPP or DPP affiliated mayor. Last year’s sunflower ...

Ashley Pon/Getty Images
Ashley Pon/Getty Images

The ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) suffered a "thumpin" in Taiwan’s recent regional and municipal elections. Early indications point to one of the more decisive victories by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of all time. For example, now some 60 percent of Taiwan’s population is governed by a DPP or DPP affiliated mayor. Last year’s sunflower movement was the first big expression of popular discontent with the China-tilt in President Ma Ying-jeou’s policies, and of increased popular angst about deepening ties with China. As democratic citizens, Taiwanese are concerned with many things, including middle class wage stagnation and other bread and butter political and economic issues. Even so, Taiwan’s politics still revolve around one main issue: relations with the People’s Republic of China. The political party that appears to manage those relations best is rewarded at the polls. Here are five initial takeaways from the recent elections:

1) Taiwanese fear a political association with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and closely watch how Beijing deals with political rights internally and within the Chinese imperium. These fears were exacerbated by President Xi Jinping’s handling of the Hong Kong affair. Taiwanese watched with horror as Beijing reneged on its commitments to Hong Kong‘s democracy and as PRC allies in the city-state resorted to intimidation and harassment of democracy supporters. Taiwanese voters associate the KMT, fairly or not, with overly conciliatory policies towards the PRC. There is a deep-seated fear in Taiwan that political conciliation will lead to an abrogation of Taiwanese political freedom.

2) A Taiwanese president’s relationship with the U.S. matters. The deal was simple. President Ma would be more conciliatory toward China and the U.S. would embrace the island more intensely. While Washington somewhat advanced relations — it has sent fairly high level envoys to Taiwan to discuss economic and energy issues, and security cooperation remains strong — the main, existential issues for Taiwan were left unaddressed. Washington needed to push hard for Taiwan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement would beneficial economically, as it would force Taiwan to further deregulate and liberalize its economy, and reduce the competitive pressures that the island’s high tech economy is feeling from places like South Korea. But it is also important strategically. The precedent was set long ago. Taiwan is a member of the WTO and APEC. Its absence in the TPP is a step backward in Taipei’s quest for an international personality. In addition, there has been only one new arms sale to Taiwan since 2009 while support for Taiwan’s decades long quest to acquire much-needed submarines is tepid. 

3) Taiwan political demographics are radically changing. Young Taiwanese voters were born in the 1990s, when democracy was setting in. There is no historic memory, even among young "mainlanders" of a tie to the "homeland." The new generation is Taiwanese. They want economic relations with their cultural and linguistic neighbors, much as Canadians do with the United States, but not anything more. Support for unification will continue to whither away. The next presidential contests in Taiwan will be about how best to manage de facto independence.

4) Xi Jinping will have to reckon with a Taiwan that is drifting away. Xi is a strongman. It would be unwise to believe he will simply let Taiwan drift. But the only way he can "reunify the motherland" is by force and coercion since no one in Taiwan will simply give away their democratic freedoms to a repressive Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The 2016 Taiwan elections will be major test for Xi — will he risk serious tension in the Asia Pacific to try and affect who becomes Taiwan’s president?

5) The U.S. in turn will have to reckon with a structurally unstable situation in the Taiwan Straits. The source of the problem is the CCP, tied to the very ideological notion that it needs Taiwan to "close the frontier" in the Frederick Jackson Turner sense, in order to achieve national rejuvenation. This misbegotten idea combined with the structural instability of the CCP makes for a toxic mix. For Washington this means the Taiwan Strait remains the main flashpoint in the Asia Pacific. It will need to deter a China that may increasingly externalize its problems. Washington’s China-Taiwan policy must find a way to keep China focused on solving internal problems, protecting the democratic freedoms of the Taiwanese, while playing for time: The only long-term peaceful solution is a change in Beijing’s attitudes about national greatness. Such greatness must be equated with the impressive accomplishments of the Chinese people rather than dead-end revanchist claims of calcifying CCP.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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