Taiwan election: Beijing holds its fire, but warns pro-independence leader

Analysts say the next several months will be critical for China-Taiwan relations after the Democratic Progressive Party won in a landslide victory on Saturday. 

Wally Santana/AP
Tsai Ing-wen waves as she declares victory in Taiwan's presidential election on Saturday.

China watchers have warned that Beijing and Taipei might be reentering a period of dangerous instability ever since it became clear that Taiwan’s pro-independence party would win Saturday’s presidential election.

But in the days since Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide victory, China’s government has responded with restraint. It’s a sign that Beijing, at least for now, doesn’t want to further alienate Taiwanese, who voted by wide margins for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Denny Roy, an Asia security specialist at the East-West Center in Hawaii, says Beijing’s reaction suggests that a DPP victory, in itself, is not unacceptable to China’s leaders.

“It’s a relatively moderate reaction, which should inspire cautious optimism,” Mr. Roy says in an e-mail.

But Roy and other analysts say the next several months will be critical for China-Taiwan relations. Beijing will be watching to see if Ms. Tsai and her party take any overtly pro-independence stands, as they have in the past. China’s leaders will also want Tsai to offer a statement that Beijing could interpret as being in line with its “One China” policy.

“What they are saying is that something close to ‘One China’ has to come out of Tsai Ing-wen’s mouth eventually,” says Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who studies Taiwanese politics.

Taiwan has been self-governing since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, but the Chinese Communist Party still sees it as territory that belongs to the mainland. Although the situation has been calm during the past eight years, the two sides exchanged fire as recently as the 1970s, and China still has hundreds of missiles pointed at the island.

On Saturday, Tsai, a former law professor, won the election with 56 percent of the vote. The DPP also won 68 of the 113 seats in  Parliament, giving the party legislative control for the first time ever.

It was a stunning defeat for the Kuomintang (KMT), the party founded by Chiang Kai-shek that has ruled Taiwan for all but eight of the last 66 years. It was also a repudiation of the policies of sitting KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, who sought to build closer economic ties with Beijing. Yet those ties have hurt Taiwan as China’s growth has slowed.

China looking for a signal

Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said Beijing might need to modify its approach to the DPP, given the size of the party’s victory. Although the DPP’s original charter made independence a core objective, Tsai has sidestepped that issue in recent years. During her campaign, Tsai said she would uphold the “status quo,” meaning that Taiwan would continue to govern itself but not seek formal independence.

“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,” Mr. Bush wrote in a blog post. “But it will not be easy.” 

The uneasiness was reflected in Chinese state media after the election. A Xinhua news agency editorial on Sunday described Taiwan’s independence aspirations as “poison.” A Global Times editorial described them as being “hallucinations.”

By contrast, China’s Taiwan Office issued a muted statement, saying it took note of the election results and wanted to develop exchanges with “all parties and groups that recognize both sides of the strait are one China.” 

Tsai, who will become Taiwan’s first woman president, is slated to be inaugurated on May 20. Before the ceremony, China will likely put pressure on the United States and Taiwan for Tsai to clarify her position on what’s known as the “1992 Consensus,” says Ms. Rigger of Davidson College.

The 1992 Consensus refers to a semi-official pact in which Chinese and Taiwanese representatives agreed that the mainland and Taiwan were part of “One China,” with each side free to interpret the meaning of the term.

Code words in state media

While Tsai and the DPP have refused to recognize or support the pact, they will be under pressure to mouth words on mainland relations that Chinese leaders might accept.

In Beijing, Taiwan’s elections are sensitive and only partially reported in state media. The Communist Party is highly concerned about contagion. It doesn’t want people on the mainland aspiring for elections of top leaders, and it doesn’t want Taiwan to be recognized as a sovereign country. 

As a result, the term “presidential election” is never used in state media, and “Taiwan region” is employed instead of “Republic of China.” The government also blocks Taiwan-related comments on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media site.

Despite such restrictions, some netizens have still managed to share their views.

“With the vote, people are treated like grandpas,” wrote one Weibo user. “Without the vote, people are treated like grandsons.”

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