New Taiwanese President: A Challenge for China
On Friday, Tsai Ing-wen will be inaugurated as President of the Republic of China, a partly recognized state that governs the island of Taiwan. She will be the first woman in this post and first leader from the pro-independence party to sit in the chair of President since 2004. But unlike the political balance of the precedent Presidents of the Democratic Progressive Party, today the party also controls legislature.
The Taiwan government is officially the government of the Republic of China that was expelled to the island from Mainland China after defeat in the civil war with communists in 1949. Officially, the Republic of China claims sovereignty on all the territory of China and some parts of neighboring states, including Russia and India. After decades of military rule and a one-party system, with Kuomintang as the main party, the process of liberalization started in the 1980’s - early 1990’s. The Democratic Progressive Party, which preaches Taiwanese nationalism and proposed official secession from China, emerged as the main opposition party.
Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 56% of votes at the Presidential elections in February. The DPP is the main pro-independence party and will control the legislature for the first time. All experts predict a new course for the island, especially with regards to relations with China.
DPP and Tsai Ing-wen are known to be personally anti-Chinese - she was educated in the US and UK. After elections, Tsai Ing-wen promised to finish the “old politics of intimidation and confrontation” but it is not clear what she means. There is a more radical wing of the DDP that seeks full sovereignty and independence, but the leader is searching for a moderate position. The majority of Taiwanese also supports this model. According to a 2014 government poll, 70% of Taiwan’s population supports self-rule but without official independence.
Last year, we have seen the artificial manipulation of the anti-Chinese rhetoric in Taiwan. The Sunflower Movement, led by students, organized a protest in front of the presidential office. They protested against a potential trade bill with China, which was negotiated by the previous government. The new government is expected to stop this policy. They propose a "supervision law" that can paralyze trade between Taiwan and the Chinese People’s Republic. The bill requires government officials to acquire legislative consent before, during, and after any talks with Beijing. They cannot sign any agreements with China before all three stages of legislative approval are completed. Business is shocked, but it is likely that, contrary to Taiwanese economic interests, the bill will be adopted.
US seeks to divide China
China showed that it is deeply distrustful of the new president and her anti-Chinese actions. The only country that will benefit from them is the US, who perceives Taiwan as a crucial military partner in the region, and plans to project its military force there, especially in the context of a confrontation with the CPR in the South China Sea. Taiwan also has a claim to the disputed Spratly Islands. If in the Cold War era the US supported anti-communist and Chinese nationalist Kuomintang, today they changed their position. Chinese communists and Kuomintang are united by Chinese nationalistic agenda and step by step are becoming closer in geopolitical issues. The previous president of the Republic of China Ma Ying-jeou of Kuomintang expanded economic and political ties with the mainland. Moreover, he was the first leader of Taiwan to meet his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, for the first time since 1945. In 1992, both countries reached a consensus on their adherence to the idea of one China, without defining what that means.
To prevent further unification with China and the eventual separation of the island from China, the US has put a stake on Taiwanese separatists. Ms. Tsai avoids using the terms “one China” and “92 consensus”. The signs of the deteriorating relations between the two Chinese governments are shown by the fact that China preceded the inauguration of the Taiwanese president with large-scale military maneuvers in close proximity to Taiwan.
The new government plans to continue close military cooperation with the US and strengthen its military force against the threat of Mainland China.
The New Frontier Foundation, which was chaired by Tsai, released a set of National Defense Policy Papers before the election. They showed that the Democratic Progressive Party would raise the military budget to 3% of GDP. Tsai Ing-wen also plans to prolong military conscription. Earlier, the defense ministry had planned to eliminate conscription by the end of 2015.
The Democratic Progressive Party is more inclined to cooperate with Japan than Kuomintang. This gives the new president the opportunity to cooperate with Japan on issues of security after Japan adopted a bill that allows the use of military force abroad. On the background of tensions in the South-China Sea and rhetoric of a common threat in Beijing, the US can construct the previously unimaginable and impossible US-Taiwan-Japan alliance, which is aimed against China in Pacific.
The gender of the election winner is also an interesting topic for discussion, because Ing-wen is the first female president of Taiwan - a traditionally patriarchal society. This highlights the erosion of identity that can manifest in another social spheres. Now it seems there is a serious shift in the leadership of Asian countries: the Presidents of South Korea and Myanmar are women too.
Balance of interests under threat
In all probability, Taiwan will continue cooperation with China in some spheres because of the needs of its economy. Also, the new president is looking for technical development in the underdeveloped areas of Taiwan, and Beijing is a good partner for this. But her political position and the US’ influence may seriously deteriorate bilateral relations. To substitute China, Taipei plans to boost economic relations with Southeast Asia, Japan, and India, but this policy is unlikely to be successful in the near future, because it signals great structural change in Taiwan’s international economic relations.
Taiwan is not a member of the U.N, so there are many deals with many actors going in particular and divergent ways. It will be a test for the new president - how she will adopt the power system of Taiwan to the new complex situation in the region and international law.