The Reelection of a Staunch American Ally in Taiwan Means Choppy Waters for China—and for Trump | Opinion

For 24 years, Taiwan's presidential elections have created tremendous global consequences. Since 1996, the elections have impacted the island's relations with China as well as U.S.-China relations. Unlike elections elsewhere which typically focus on internal matters, Taiwan's elections have always been shaped by external factors. In fact, they have become a proxy of strategic rivalry between the United States and China.

Incumbent Tsai Ing-wen successfully clinched a second term as President of the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan's official name, in a landslide victory over a formidable challenger, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, in the January 11, 2020 election. Tsai received over eight million votes, the highest in ROC's electoral history. The Chinese government in Beijing, which is assumed to favor Han from the mainland-friendly KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party, has never trusted Tsai since she took office in 2016. Tsai has refused to concede to the so-called "1992 Consensus," which claims that both sides belong to "One China," with different interpretations by each side. Han's KMT endorses the "92 Consensus," giving Beijing some faint hope for national reunification. But Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) insist that Taiwan and China are two separate countries.

In her victory speech, Tsai laid out her 8-character principle in handling cross-Taiwan Strait relations: Peace (heping), Parity (duideng), Democracy (minzhu) and Dialogue (duihua). According to her, "heping" means China must abandon threats of force against Taiwan; "duideng" means neither side should deny the fact of the other's official existence; "minzhu" means the future of Taiwan must be decided by its 23 million people; and "duihua" means the two sides must sit down to discuss the future development of cross-strait relations. Tsai urged Beijing to recognize Taiwan's democracy and reiterated that Taiwan would not yield to threats and intimidation. Her speech may sound measured and sensible, but few think the Chinese government is willing or prepared to talk to her. In an interview with the BBC, her first after the re-election, Tsai claimed that China must "face the reality" of Taiwan's independence, violating the ROC Constitution and apparently closing the door to Beijing for dialogue.

Taiwan remains a highly split society. In her second term, Tsai will have to pacify the grudging 5.5 million voters who supported Han. Indeed, Tsai's victory is not based on her performance in the past three and half years. Even her ardent supporters are hard-pressed to come up with a substantive list of her achievements. Her biggest sell is that she is the candidate who can defend Taiwan's democracy and sovereignty. That alone was apparently enough to help her secure a second term. Tsai adopted some highly controversial policies that have alienated many in Taiwan, such as the hastily-passed Anti-Infiltration Act at the end of 2019 and the pension reforms earlier. In comparison, Han's campaign slogan "Never forget the struggling people" resonated with many ordinary citizens in Taiwan who felt their lives have not been improved under Tsai.

Tsai's approval ratings in early 2019 were so low that few thought she had a chance for re-election. Her miraculous comeback was undoubtedly aided by external factors, including the prolonged protests in Hong Kong, Beijing's unpopular "one country two systems" proposal, and America's indirect but substantial support.

The Trump administration has proved to be the most effective boost for Tsai's re-election. Partly thanks to the trade war Trump launched, the Chinese economy has declined. As a result, some mainland-based Taiwan businesses have moved back to Taiwan, enhancing Taiwan's struggling economy.

Tsai capitalized on the Hong Kong protests and proclaimed failure of the "one country, two systems" policy. "Today's Hong Kong, Tomorrow's Taiwan" became her powerful rallying force, especially among the young people who are worried about Taiwan's future. Trump's signing of two Hong Kong-related legislations passed by Congress almost unanimously not only energized Hong Kong protestors but also motivated Tsai supporters.

On the other hand, China's preferential policies for Taiwan residents who wish to work, study or live in the mainland have failed to win hearts and minds of the majority of the Taiwanese, who also oppose "one country two systems" and believe it will terminate Taiwan's sovereignty.

Tsai's victory is a clear and loud message to Beijing: the Taiwanese care more about freedom and democracy than anything else. With each election, the political gap between Taipei and Beijing widens.

Looking ahead, China will likely continue its push for reunification according to its own plan. It'll punish the Tsai administration economically and diplomatically, such as continuing to curb mainland tourists to Taiwan and snatch Taiwan's diplomatic allies. And the KMT will be marginalized in Taiwanese politics, driving Taiwan closer to becoming a single party-dominated democracy like Japan.

Aiming to establish an independent Taiwanese state, the DPP, which continues to control both the presidency and the legislature, is likely to further promote Taiwan's self-identity and cut the remaining historical and cultural roots with the mainland. Cross-Strait relations will enter a period of high tensions as the Taiwanese identity and Chinese nationalism clash directly.

The Trump administration has congratulated Tsai's re-election, but is it ready for some real choppy waters in the Taiwan Strait?

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​