Closer ties with China? Taiwan’s voters look likely to say, ‘No thanks.’

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) vice-presidential candidate William Lai attend a campaign rally ahead of Saturday's presidential election, in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Jan. 8, 2020.

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For the past four years, since Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan, China has run a full-court press of tactics to pressure the island toward unification: diplomatic, military, economic, and media operations.

And 12 months ago, as the campaign for this Saturday’s presidential election first kicked into gear, it looked like Beijing’s efforts might bear fruit. Polls put President Tsai’s main opponent, who has favored warmer ties with the mainland for economic reasons, well ahead of her.

Why We Wrote This

Beijing has banked on increasing pressure tactics to push unification with Taiwan. But as the Chinese-speaking island intently watches another – Hong Kong – many see a stark cautionary tale for their democracy.

What a difference a year makes.

In Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, many Taiwanese voters see a warning for themselves. Taiwan is de facto independent, but Beijing seeks to bring the island back under its control – by force, if necessary – and establish a “one country, two systems” plan like Hong Kong’s and Macau’s. Ms. Tsai has championed the protests, and her campaign recently released a split-screen video contrasting tranquil scenes of teen lives in Taiwan with images of police repression against Hong Kong’s young protesters. “Stand with freedom,” the clip urges viewers.

Now, Ms. Tsai is 20 to 30 points ahead in the polls, signaling a setback for China’s strategy – which could lead Beijing to reconsider its approach, or keep on escalating.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen appears poised to win another four-year term in Saturday’s election, her campaign buoyed by a shored up political base and improved economic growth. She’s also received a boost from the backfiring of China’s pressure tactics – not only toward the island of 23 million people, but also nearby Hong Kong.

If Ms. Tsai prevails, her victory would signal a setback for China’s strategy of coercing Taiwan toward closer ties and unification during her first term. That might prompt authoritarian Beijing to reconsider its approach to the democratic island, or, more probably, to escalate its full-court press, Asia analysts say.

“It’s very likely Tsai will win reelection on Jan. 11, and I think we are in for, unfortunately, another four years of very high tension in the [Taiwan] Strait,” says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corp.   

Why We Wrote This

Beijing has banked on increasing pressure tactics to push unification with Taiwan. But as the Chinese-speaking island intently watches another – Hong Kong – many see a stark cautionary tale for their democracy.

“We’ve already seen that since her election in 2016, with China using diplomatic, economic, military, and information coercive means to get Taiwan to acknowledge, from Beijing’s standpoint, that it is part of China,” Mr. Grossman says. “You are going to see more of that.”     

Ms. Tsai, whose majority Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) backs Taiwan’s separate identity from mainland China, has gained popular support for her rejection of Beijing’s efforts to push unification with Taiwan under the same “one country, two systems” formula that governed China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and Macau. For the past eight months, as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers continued to take to the streets, many Taiwanese have viewed the crisis as a caution against tightening their own fraught relationship with the mainland.

“Hong Kong has given Tsai a significant boost, because she can point to a tangible example nearby where there is another state living under ‘one country, two systems’ and it is obviously not working out well for them,” says Mr. Grossman.

Indeed, the president’s surge in the polls – and the downward slide of her opponent, the relatively inexperienced Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu – began last June after Ms. Tsai championed the mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. She went from lagging behind Mr. Han by 10 to 20 percentage points in the polls a year ago, to leading him by 20 to 30 points in December.

The legal status of Hong Kong as part of China differs greatly from Taiwan’s de facto independence, but Taiwanese see in Hong Kong a potentially dark vision of their own future given Beijing’s goal of extending the “one country, two systems” model to Taiwan – a model nearly 80% of the Taiwanese public rejects, according to a government survey in March. Ms. Tsai’s campaign recently released a split-screen video contrasting tranquil scenes of teen lives in a democratic Taiwan with images of police repression of Hong Kong’s young pro-democracy protesters – and urging voters to “stand with freedom” when they vote Jan. 11.

Even Mr. Han – who has favored warmer ties with China for economic reasons – responded to the massive Hong Kong protests by vowing in June that, if elected president, he would never allow “one country, two systems” to be implemented in Taiwan, “unless it is over my dead body.”

Those remarks apparently galled Beijing, which had indirectly backed Mr. Han’s successful run for mayor in the southern city of Kaohsiung in 2018, and led to a reduction of support, according to Paul Huang, a Taiwanese journalist who has investigated China’s influence operations in Taiwan’s elections.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, of the opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT), attends an election campaign in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 9, 2020.

“This statement really angered people in Beijing because, from the Chinese Communist Party perspective, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and it really crossed the line,” Mr. Huang says. “From that point on they just decided this guy is not our guy, and then they cut support to a lot of things that were funneling money to him.” 

Escalation ahead?

China’s leader Xi Jinping reiterated in January 2019 Beijing’s policy to unify Taiwan with mainland China under the “one country, two systems” model – by force if necessary – warning the issue should not be handed from generation to generation.

Barring an unexpected win by Mr. Han or trailing third candidate James Soong of the People First Party, a victory by Ms. Tsai would highlight how Beijing’s pressure tactics have not worked, analysts say.

“On the part of the Beijing leadership, it’s ... not catastrophic but certainly an extremely unfavorable development if Tsai Ing-wen gets reelected,” says Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “It will generally increase the weight in the debate of those who argue that Taiwan is slipping away and we, China, need to be doing something different to staunch that trend. That is the real danger,” he says.

This might, in turn, lead Beijing to launch “a comprehensive policy review,” and internal debate over long-term strategy, writes Kharis Templeman, an adviser to the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, in a paper last month.

More likely, however, China’s pressure on Taiwan will continue across the board in the military, economic, political, and diplomatic spheres, analysts say.

During Ms. Tsai’s first term, China increased military air and naval patrols around Taiwan and held live-fire exercises in the 80-mile-wide strait separating Taiwan from the mainland. Taiwan, for its part, has continued to bolster its ability to defend against a mainland invasion, including through a purchase announced this summer of an estimated $2.2 billion worth of U.S. Abrams tanks and Stinger air defense systems.

China has waged influence operations involving both traditional and social media in Taiwan in an effort to sway elections, leading Taiwan to pass an anti-infiltration law last month that increases penalties for those who help “external hostile forces” to lobby Taiwanese politicians or organize political activities.

Economically, Beijing has sought to punish Taipei by imposing a ban last summer on individual travelers to Taiwan, causing a decline in Chinese visitors to the island in recent months. Nevertheless, Taiwan welcomed a record number of tourists from all countries last year. Taiwan also achieved solid economic growth last year – partly due to shifts caused by the U.S.-China trade war – with strong export gains and low unemployment.

On the diplomatic front, China also halted talks between government representatives, while moving to increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation by enticing more countries to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Overall, the number of countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan dropped from 22 in 2016 to 15 currently.

Still, some analysts downplay the significance of the dwindling of such formal ties. “What should really be important” to Taiwan is “very strong unofficial relations with important countries like the United States and Japan,” Mr. Roy says.

Taiwan’s officials, for their part, stress they will forge ahead. “Although China seems determined to keep us out of the international arena,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, said in a statement on Thursday, “the Taiwanese government and people are determined to be a force for good in the world.”

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