Why Taiwan's presidential frontrunner is tacking to the center

The main opposition party appears headed for victory in Saturday's election in Taiwan. Its presidential candidate has signaled a more conciliatory stance towards China. 

Olivia Harris/Reuters
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen speaks to her supporters at a campaign rally a day before the election in New Taipei City, Taiwan, on Friday.

When it last held power, Taiwan’s main opposition party aggressively pushed a pro-independence line that antagonized China and stirred unease in Washington. Now, one day before an election the opposition is widely expected to win, its leader is promising to work with Beijing this time around.

Behind this policy shift is an electoral calculation: Centrist voters don’t want to undo the modus operandi that exists between self-ruled Taiwan and China, which has long claimed sovereignty over this island of 23 million people.

Tsai Ing-wen, the chairperson and presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), pledged last month to avoid “provoking” China or causing mishaps, advocating communication instead. She has said that if elected she would respect the 23 agreements that the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) had reached with China since it won back the presidency in 2008.  

Ms. Tsai’s centrist appeal distances her from the minority voters who want Taiwan to declare legal independence from Beijing.

“Their ability to influence her is pretty small now,” says Tung Chen-yuan, development studies professor in Taipei who was a minister under the previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian. “The average voter wants the status quo with China. Because Tsai wants their support, she has moved to the center.”

About 70 percent of Taiwanese back that status quo – self-rule without formal, constitutional independence – a government opinion survey found in 2014. China says the two sides must eventually unite, but it has put that issue aside since the KMT regained power in 2008. The party subsequently initiated a first-ever dialogue that was seen by China as a way to bring the two sides together over time, primarily via greater economic integration.

About 5 percent of Taiwanese advocate the pursuit of legal independence from China, Mr. Tung said. President Chen took up that cause during his two terms that ended in 2008, both to distinguish the DPP from the KMT and to bolster his faction in a fractured party.

As Chen pressed for independence, the two sides barely talked; Beijing occasionally threatened to use force. The election of Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 restored KMT rule in Taiwan and brought a shift in policy towards China.

Protests and a slide in support

Mr. Ma, who is required to step down after serving two terms, has lost support in recent years over complaints that he rushed into deals with China without consulting the public or giving them direct benefits. The ruling party suffered major defeats in local elections in 2014 after mass protests in Taipei over Ma’s dealings with China. Some still worry that his government is privately negotiating political unification, an idea the KMT rejects.

Party spokesman Eric Huang said that if the KMT is returned to power it would ensure any new deals with China help common Taiwanese people, who would also be consulted more. The KMT’s chairperson Eric Chu is running against Ms. Tsai, who is favored to win.

“I think definitely [this year’s election] is a rebuttal against the Ma administration’s current hypothesis on relations with China,” says Lai I-chung, vice-president of Taiwan Think Tank. “But I don’t think it means the current population wants to have a war with China.”

Taiwanese still support deals with China that deliver direct economic benefits, analysts say. Agreements reached since 2008 pushed two-way trade to an all-time high of $130 billion in 2014. And Taiwan receives nearly 4 million tourists a year from China, boosting the service sector.

Tsai, a former law scholar, had long been seen as more moderate toward Beijing than her party’s past president, a stance that has become clearer over the past year, says Lin Chong-pin, a retired professor. She advocated in April not declaring formal independence.

“I will set up a system for talking to the outside so we form a mutual understanding with mainland China and other countries and allow us a communication channel,” Tsai said in a Jan. 2 televised debate.

Mr. Lin, who worked under Tsai when she ran Chen’s China policymaking body, says she learned from that experience and from her dealings with the US government. Washington wants China and Taiwan to get along but hopes the island remains part of Washington’s democratic alliance in East Asia, he said.

Dreams of going it alone

Pro-independence Taiwanese believe their cause will eventually resurface. “We’ll cooperate with [Tsai’s] camp, because it’s going with people’s sentiment for status quo relations with China,” says Huang Chun-jung, founder of Taiwan Youth Public Affairs, a campaign group. “Our political ambitions are a long-term job.”

Tsai has said her government would not meet China on the basis of the precondition agreed by the KMT, namely that each side is part of one China, with differing interpretations of what “China” means. In a gesture to independence supporters like Mr. Huang, she prefers not to bind the China and Taiwan under a single entity for negotiation purposes.

So far, Tsai has made no counter-proposal that China is likely to accept; it insists that Taiwan sticks with the current precondition.

A standoff over the grounds for dialogue could at its worst be “met with a sharp cutoff in a great range of contacts and activities now under way,” followed by “a highly negative reaction in Taiwan,” says Alan Romberg, East Asia Program director with the Stimson Center in Washington.

Some voters here worry about that worst-case scenario. “Over time the Nationalists have been in accordance with people’s demand for stability,” says Charles Chiu, a computer programmer in Taipei. “Other parties might cause war or other conflicts.”

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