Although we hear a great deal about China’s naval-military build-up in the South China Sea to assert its “historic claims” over the oil and gas-rich islands, much to the consternation of other claimants, the real story that many have apparently missed is the prospect of Taiwan’s pro-independence party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), winning the forthcoming election on Jan. 16 in Taiwan, and its impact on ties with the mainland.
A few weeks back, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore, apparently, to convey the couched message to Taiwan’s electorate that China would see it as a serious disruption of its relations with the island republic if the DPP was voted to power. China makes no secret of its preference for Ma’s Kuomintang Party which is seen as less strident than the DPP, which talks about “independence” for Taiwan, a renegade province in Beijing’s eyes.
First of all, there is delicious irony in the fact that Xi met Ma in Singapore. China usually opposes in shrill tone any Taiwanese leader being allowed to set foot on the soil of a foreign country; China sees such visits as an attempt to question the mainland’s sovereignty over Taiwan.
Secondly, the notion that such a Xi-Ma meeting would influence the electorate to vote in Ma’s favor is not only naïve but also out of touch with reality. Taiwan’s electorate is generally alarmed by the possibility of the island republic being locked in a tight embrace with the mainland resulting from Taiwan’s asymmetric economic and trade dependence on China. Such dependence, it is feared, will make the island republic vulnerable to any pressure from the mainland to return to the “motherland’s fold.” Consequently, there have been calls not only from the DPP but also within a section of the Kuomintang to reduce this dependency and diversify trade and economic relations with other countries, including the United States, European Union, Japan, India, et cetera.
Taiwan is also closely watching the developments taking place in the South China Sea where China has taken a belligerent posturing against other claimants to the oil- and gas-rich islands, asserting its position based on questionable “historical claims,” which have been adequately rebutted by leading experts on law of the sea. Also, the suppression of civil rights in Hong Kong, including the latest “disappearance” of a prominent editor, has raised serious doubts over China’s promise to honor the “one country, two system” pledge it gave to Britain to preserve Hong Kong’s liberal values and ideals. China’s conduct on these issues has not endeared China to the people in Taiwan.
U.S. diplomats also believe that China’s attempts to influence the Taiwan polls would be unsuccessful. Daniel Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state told me during a discussion at the Asia Society in New York that the Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore would not influence Taiwan’s election result.
Ma, who retires on completion of his two-term tenure as Taiwan’s president, is credited with having brought Taiwan closer to the mainland; however, Ma has also been criticized by his opponents for making the island republic too “dependent” on China, which has become Taiwan’s largest trading partner.
The DPP’s candidate Tsai Ing-wen, leading in polls by a wide margin, is considered a favorite to win the Jan. 16 presidential election in which 113 seats in parliament will be contested. Opinion polls by local media show Tsai as the front-runner enjoying about 45 percent of support from potential voters, far ahead of the ruling KMT party candidate Eric Chu’s around 20 percent, and the smaller People First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong’s 10 percent.
That is precisely what China fears and dreads.
It is a fact that under Ma the two sides established direct trade and travel links, though a dangerous side effect of this growing interaction has been an increased enmeshment of Taiwan’s economy with that of China.
By trying to influence Taiwan’s voters not to vote for the DPP, China is also betraying its hidden fears and uncertainty over the drastic change Tsai’s election could bring about, with the possibility of a “roll back” in the new government’s policy and a formal declaration of independence that could antagonize the snorting bulls in China. Criticism emanating so far from Beijing is aimed at Tsai’s person, even though she has been careful enough not to raise the banner of independence, and has said she would like to maintain the status quo between the two sides, a position that is at variance with the independence goal of the DPP.
However, China is not very pleased at some of the pre-election rhetoric from Tsai who has refused to toe Beijing’s line on formally acknowledging Taiwan and the mainland as part of a single Chinese nation. This demand, Beijing argues, is in keeping with its doctrine, euphemistically referred to as the “92 Consensus” that constituted the basis of the historic talks between both sides two decades ago.
Tsai clearly stated during a debate with her Nationalist Party opponent, Eric Chu, that she cannot simply allow the island to be bound to China, and expressed her “deep concern” over the past eight years which had left the island with this only choice, which was bad for Taiwan’s economy and its security.
China is unable to fathom, at this point, how it should react to a possible Tsai victory but it is becoming almost paranoid over such a possibility.
It is also uncomfortable for the communist authoritarian mainland to face a thriving and robust democracy right at its doorstep, with the public actively and openly participating in the electoral process, in sharp contrast to the tightly-controlled and fossil-like political architecture on the communist mainland.
Nevertheless, it would not be in the interest of Taiwan to go on a full-scale frontal confrontation with China by promoting independence or a separate identify, if the DPP were handed a victory and pursued its avowed goals of independence. This could have a strong economic impact on the island republic—and also in China—besides being a source of concern for the neighbors and, of course, the United States which, because of the Taiwan Relations Act, will be obliged to provide Taiwan the means to defend itself and could be drawn into an armed conflict.
China already has hundreds of missiles targeted at Taiwan. Beijing has already made it clear that it is against Taiwan’s independence, repeating its old argument that Taiwan was wrongfully taken away from China in 1895 to become a Japanese colony and later separated because of the civil war. Though the DPP—and the majority of Taiwan’s population—is against Taiwan’s reunification with the “motherland,” the goal of independence is fraught with dangers for Taiwan. Instead, Taiwan could take the course of reducing its trade and economic dependence on China. Economic independence is the mantra that can give Taiwan greater political elbowroom.
Manik Mehta is a New York/New Jersey-based journalist who has been covering global economics, business, and social-cultural issues for more than 20 years.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.