On January 16, Taiwan broke a series of firsts in its national elections.
For the first time, a woman, lawyer Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, won the presidency.
Simultaneously, her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won an outright majority in the Legislative Yuan.
And while these elections show that democracy is very much vibrant and alive in Taiwan, they could potentially set the stage for mounting tensions between Taiwan, mainland China, and by extension, the US.
In China’s view, Taiwan is a renegade Chinese province that technically belongs to the mainland under its “One China” policy.
However, the DPP has in the past pushed for a strong pro-independence line that rattled both Chinese and US politicians.
From 2000 to 2008, the last time the DPP held the office of presidency, the candidate “was a pro-independence firebrand who needlessly provoked China, creating endless headaches for Washington policy makers,” The Wall Street Journal notes. And that was without control of the parliament.
Now, with the DPP controlling both the presidency and the legislature, any push for Taiwanese independence could drastically impact Chinese-Taiwanese, and Chinese-US relations. As the Christian Science Monitor notes, China still maintains hundreds of missile pointing at Taiwan and the two sides exchanged fire in the 1970s over precisely the issue of Taiwanese sovereignty.
Any return to tensions would drastically impact the US pivot to the Pacific and, in a worst case scenario, could result in the US and China being dragged into war on opposing sides. The US, although falling short of recognising Taiwan as independent, maintains with the Taiwan Relations Act that it would support the island against any forced moves by Beijing for reunification.
Fortunately, cooler heads are so far prevailing. Tsai, the WSJ notes, is noted as a pragmatist who is unlikely to campaign for Taiwanese independence and is instead believed to want to stick to the ongoing “One China” status quo — even if Taiwan and China both have radically different ideas of what that idea may mean.
And with a series of larger issues now looming over China — tensions in the South China Sea, a struggling economy, and a North Korean nuclear test among others — the issue of Taiwan may be low on Beijing’s priorities as long as Taipei doesn’t do anything drastic. In return, Beijing has so far responded moderately to the Taiwanese elections.
“What they are saying is that something close to ‘One China’ has to come out of Tsai Ing-wen’s mouth eventually,” Shelley Rigger, a professor specializing in Taiwanese politics at Davidson College, told the Christian Science Monitor.
Essentially, as long as Taiwan is willing to continue to tow the line, then Beijing will also continue to allow Taiwan to carry on ruling itself as essentially an independent nation.
“If Beijing can adjust its strategy and Tsai is willing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping half way, a mutual accommodation between them is not impossible,” Richard C. Bush III, the director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institute wrote.
“But it will not be easy.”
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