By Jessica Drun
Taiwan will hold national elections on January 16. The island’s position on Washington’s list of regional hotspots has fallen since 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China inaugurated an unprecedented reduction in cross-strait tensions. However, if current polling data holds true and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins the upcoming elections, the United States may find it more challenging to balance its commitment to Taiwan with its broader relationship with China.
The Context for the Upcoming Elections
The past eight years of Kuomintang (KMT) leadership have seen unparalleled levels of engagement between Taiwan and China, marked by the signing of a major preferential trade agreement in 2010 and the re-establishment of direct contacts. Ma’s policies contrast starkly with those of his DPP predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, whose pro-independence stance was viewed as belligerent by the mainland. Yet the political landscape is again shifting to the DPP’s advantage due to economic and political dissatisfaction with the incumbent government: some voters argue that the economic rewards of enhanced relations have not trickled down to the masses, while others claim that the pace and scope of agreements have not allowed for adequate oversight and diminish Taiwan’s ability to counteract Chinese coercion.
The reversal in KMT fortunes can be attributed to two factors: first, party infighting and stagnation; and second, shifting public opinion against the scope and pace of the KMT’s policy toward the mainland. Party unity reached its nadir in September 2013 following Ma’s attempted ousting of Legislative Yuan (LY) speaker and purported rival Wang Jin-pyng. Public discontent with the KMT’s policies manifested in the March 2014 Sunflower Movement, during which hundreds of students occupied the LY in protest of the government’s decisions to fast-track a trade agreement with China. The protestors argued that this move lacked transparency and undermined democratic procedure. Wang brokered the end of the protests by meeting with the student leaders and agreeing to a more detailed review of the trade agreement. His acquiescence came as a surprise to many within his own party—including the president and members of the LY—highlighting the apparent rivalries and conflicting viewpoints within the KMT.
The KMT’s internal problems culminated in a solid defeat in the November 2014 local elections, and President Ma subsequently stepped down as the party’s chairman. The DPP took 47.56% of the ballot to the KMT’s 40.70%, winning 13 of 22 available executive seats and gaining prominent KMT strongholds in northern and central Taiwan. The local elections are often seen as a barometer for the national elections, and the KMT has struggled to regain the lost momentum. Despite a reshuffling of KMT leadership, party heavyweights were unwilling to put their names forward for the party presidential nomination—indicative of low expectations of victory. In the end, the vice president of the LY, Hung Hsiu-chu, emerged unanimously as the KMT candidate for the January 2016 elections.
In the months that followed, the disarray within the KMT became more evident. Hung’s poor polling behind the DPP’s candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, and the People’s First Party’s James Soong compounded fear among the KMT that Tsai and Soong could produce a strong coattail effect in the LY elections and overturn the KMT majority. This led the KMT to call an emergency Party Congress, less than three months away from the election, to replace Hung with current KMT chairman and mayor of New Taipei Eric Chu.
For the time being, however, both the KMT and Chinese government have been gearing up rhetoric on the 1992 consensus in the lead-up to the elections by touting the tacit agreement as the cornerstone of cross-strait relations. The objective is twofold: the first is to signal to Taiwan’s electorate that the KMT is the party best equipped to handle relations with the mainland, and the second is to pressure Tsai to adopt a China policy more in-line with the current approach.
The Implications of a DPP Victory
The implications of the 2016 elections for cross-strait and U.S.-Taiwan relations remain to be seen. Yet with Ma’s unpopularity evident since the early months of his second term and recent polling data showing the DPP’s Tsai with a steady lead, Beijing has been preparing for what it sees as a possible but unwanted DPP victory. The DPP has softened its approach to cross-strait relations since the tumultuous Chen years, and Chinese leadership has sought out channels of engagement with the DPP in order to better understand the mindsets of its leaders and its political ideologies. The DPP has reciprocated and demonstrated its willingness to engage.
Given the likelihood of a DPP victory in the presidential election, the makeup of the LY will be critical. The DPP has never held a majority in the LY. The divided government during the Chen administration led to political gridlock that prevented some of the president’s policy initiatives from moving forward, which purportedly kept China’s ire at bay. While Tsai has promised to maintain the status quo, it is unclear whether the subtleties behind what the DPP constitutes as “status quo”—particularly vis-à-vis the KMT interpretation that recognizes the 1992 consensus and upholds the “one China” principle—will be sufficient for the mainland.
A DPP administration would face challenges that stem from its cross-strait policy. While Tsai’s affirmation of the status quo includes the cross-strait agreements reached under the Ma administration, the negotiating bodies of such agreements—Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS)—have operated under the premise of the 1992 consensus and one-China principle since 2008, when SEF-ARATS talks resumed following a nine-year suspension. Given that the parameters for cross-strait political dialogue between a DPP government and Beijing are yet to be determined, the viability of future talks is unclear. Moreover, it is uncertain how much Beijing is willing to tolerate in general from a DPP administration or how long Chinese leadership is willing to wait for a resolution, particularly as its “carrots” approach to Taiwan in winning the “hearts and minds” of Taiwan’s people has done little to draw the island closer.
For the KMT, a major defeat in both the presidential and legislative elections may prompt a realignment of party priorities to better appeal to the Taiwan electorate, as occurred following its defeat in the 2000 election. While party-to-party dialogue will likely continue, the extent and scope of these meetings may change and alter the existing dynamic between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party. Beyond partisan politics, the elections could also have implications for Taiwan’s international space if Beijing seeks to exert political pressures on the next administration to influence its cross-strait polices. First, the so-called diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan—an implicit agreement to refrain from diplomatic competition in the form of poaching official allies—is grounded in China’s demonstrated goodwill toward Ma’s rapprochement policy. Reports have indicated that some of Taiwan’s allies, eager to reap the benefits of Chinese investment, have made motions to switch diplomatic recognition, with only Beijing’s forbearance preventing such actions. Additionally, Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, which saw an uptick during the Ma administration, could decline. The mechanisms through which Taiwan is allowed access to key UN-specialized agencies remain ad hoc and subject to a case-by-case review. China is unlikely to withdraw its approval of Taiwan’s participation due to its desire to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s public, but the possibility cannot be entirely discounted.
In short, the overall strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific has changed significantly since the years of elevated cross-strait tensions in the early 2000s. While both China and DPP policymakers have made motions to avoid heightened tensions, the reality stands that the next few years will be less predictable than the past eight.
Originally published at the National Bureau of Asian Research.