Just over a week ago, Taiwanese people went to the polls and delivered a resounding victory, and a strong public mandate, for the Democratic Progressive Party (“DPP”). Along with winning back the Presidency, the DPP also won a clear majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan, the country’s national parliament, for the first time. The results left the DPP in control of both the executive branch and the legislature, along with five of the nation’s six municipalities.
Although much of the media coverage registered positive, if guarded, assessments of Tsai’s campaign and her victory, some sections of the international press categorically view the outcome of the elections as a cause for concern. For these voices, Tsai Ing-wen’s victory automatically entails a new colder phase in cross-strait relations, one which could dangerously reignite the very tensions that had allegedly been ameliorated by the efforts of the Ma administration and thereby sets the clock on Taiwan-China relations back eight years. That narrative, though tenacious, is becoming more transparently out of step with the rapidly changing facts on the ground. Rather than a threat, Tsai’s victory actually presents an important opportunity for Washington and the world. Taiwan could play a key role in maintaining peace and stability in a region creaking under the pressures of bitterly-held grievances, hegemonic aspirations, dwindling oceanic resources, climate change, and slowing economic growth.
The first message of Taiwan’s elections is that Taiwanese democracy represents the most robust and stable exercise of periodic political accountability and smooth change in ruling parties in all of Asia. Taiwanese demonstrated again that they value, and will exercise, their right to suffrage, as a national ritual embedded into their cultural DNA. They also showed that not every election has to be regarded as an existential fight for the survival of the nation, or dominated by the question of relations with China. Voters this time backed the party which identified more with ‘Taiwan (ROC)’ than ‘The Republic of China on Taiwan’ but in no way should the results be interpreted to suggest that the President-elect, her incoming administration, her party’s legislators, or a majority of Taiwanese, support any radical change in Taiwan’s formal identity or any action that could destabilize cross-strait relations.
Tsai Ing-wen won the election in part because poor alternatives offered by the other parties. Similarly, the DPP won a majority in the
legislature to a large degree because of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (“KMT”) atypical disarray during the election campaign, which added to the momentum the DPP had from its crushing victory in 2014. Bleaker yet for the KMT, a strong argument can be made that 2016 was a near re-run of the 2014 vote, not just a bad election because of low turnout. Voter demographics are not on their side either.Tsai and the DPP won because the electorate decided eight years had been sufficient time for the KMT to prove it could cleanly, effectively, compassionately, and securely steward the nation. On January 16th, the verdict was a categorical vote of no confidence in the KMT’s incompetent leadership, obstinacy, mendacity, ideological myopia, and brinkmanship with the nation’s economic sovereignty and security.
The second message the election sent was that Tsai intends to lead an administration characterized by calm and considered governance, accountability, and transparency, not only in the Executive Yuan but also the legislature. The unanimous DPP caucus vote for Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) as Speaker of the Legislature, rather than the politically well-connected caucus leader Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘), suggests that DPP seeks to mirror Tsai's values in the way it performs in the legislature. Early signs indicate that Tsai's DPP is very different to the party which emerged as the formal opposition in the face of violent suppression in the 1970s and 1980s, or the party which oversaw the first change in ruling power with Chen Shui-bian in 2000. Under Tsai’s leadership, the DPP today appears to be a more professional, focused, and organized operation that is on-message, globally aware, and diplomatically savvy. Where President Chen felt it necessary to raise the international profile of Taiwan in ways that would symbolically speak of its status as an independent nation-state, Tsai will not likely waste valuable political capital on reiterating de facto truisms. Tsai will not articulate ‘independence’ directly. It will instead be reflected every time she speaks clearly, carefully, and firmly in defense of Taiwan’s dignity, its economic sovereignty, and its right to determine its own future free of coercion. This is the DPP's 'Taiwan Consensus'. This is Tsai’s ‘status quo’.
During her campaign, Tsai consistently framed her cross-strait policy in terms of four points: 1) recognizing and respecting the historical fact that negotiations took place in 1992 and that both sides seek common ground and understanding, 2) taking into account the ROC Constitution, 3) acknowledging the cross-strait consultations and interactions that have taken place over the last twenty years, and finally, 4) following the principles of democracy and the democratic will of the Taiwanese people. It is true that Tsai has not, and likely will not, accept the ‘1992 Consensus’ or the ‘One China Principle’ as a precondition for engaging in cross-strait negotiations or discussions. Instead, she has crafted a position which signifies an openness to dialogue but not at the expense of certain core interests. Tsai will consider all positions but she will not be coerced into buying a one-way ticket for the kind of One Country Two Systems that Hong Kong is wilting under. It is a principled and flexible approach to a hugely complex quandary. Nuance and ambiguity may become a hallmark of the Tsai administration.
How China will respond has yet to be fully seen. Beijing will however be making a mistake if it imagines President Tsai will allow herself to be bullied or easily provoked. She will choose her words carefully and draw upon her experience as a former cross-strait negotiator. In turn, if Tsai is steady in her captaincy of Taiwan under pressure from China, it will provide a control against which to test and measure Beijing’s reactions as expressions of its regional strategy. Capitals around the world could come to see a clear contrast between Taipei’s moderate, diplomatic approach, and Beijing’s insistence on hostile posturing, rigid pre-conditions, and red lines drawn in the sand. If that happens it will be hard to continue avoiding the inescapable conclusion that cross-strait tensions are fabricated in Beijing, not Taipei.
Third, the election results highlight Taiwanese pragmatism and risk aversion. Ma’s rapprochement with Beijing was hindered by the contraction of the Chinese economy, undermining his rationale for for signing ECFA. His government’s approach to handling supposedly warmer relations pushed too far and too fast for a large slice of the electorate. Since the KMT’s Presidential candidate this year offered a set of policies that amounted to no more than a less coherently and forcibly argued version of Ma’s, Taiwanese overwhelmingly decided that the next administration should be headed by someone offering a more cautious approach to risk management.
Taiwanese cautiousness and pessimism over a poor financial outlook for the coming year were also illustrated by how the economy was the dominant issue in the presidential debates and forums, and in the election campaign generally. Where in 2008 and 2012 the KMT was able to explicitly link the economy with cross-strait relations, arguing that a synergy between the two would generate immediate benefits, by 2014 a lack of demonstrable return on that promise left the party unable to rebut criticism during and after the 318 Sunflower Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan. This helped the DPP decouple the issues in 2016. This was a devastating indictment of failure in the two areas in which Ma had vowed to excel in 2008. The KMT has lost its voter association with superior stewardship of the economy. Even more ominously for a party which takes pride in its Chinese identity, the public does not trust the KMT to handle cross-strait relations in the interests, and security, of a majority of Republic of China citizens.
This does not mean that Tsai and a DPP Government will immediately fare any better in either area. Neither of the two previous Taiwanese Presidents were able to enjoy either of their terms in office without having to fight a financial crisis or recession. As an export-oriented, energy-dependent economy, Taiwan is also vulnerable to sudden contractions in the global supply chain. If 2016 sees another dip in the global economy, Tsai will face great domestic pressure to protect Taiwanese jobs, incomes, and savings, limiting her ability to accept potentially politically damaging terms of inclusion in regional and bilateral trade frameworks. Climate change and adverse weather impacts on infrastructure, agriculture, and tourism will also be ongoing concerns for her administration. Whatever happens, there will be strong pressure on Tsai to deliver results, matching the expectations she has fostered during the last two years. Some of that pressure may come from behind.
The success or failure of the Tsai Administration also depends on the discipline and focus of the DPP’s majority legislative caucus. If it forms a productive working relationship with the Government, Tsai has a greater chance of realizing her policy goals. If, however, the DPP caucus descends into factional division, public trust and faith in Tsai and her party could quickly dissipate. Since these are new waters for the DPP, some time might be needed before the DPP Government and its legislative caucus evolve an effective working relationship.
Finally, for Washington there should be quiet relief that Tsai was elected. Although President Ma often reiterated that U.S.-Taiwan relations had markedly improved, these words were balms for the numerous occasions in which Taipei acted as an irritant and distraction. President Ma’s periodic declarations of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, his piggyback acceptance of China’s infamously arbitrary dotted line, his downsizing of the military and its budget, and his South China Sea Peace Initiative all sent contradictory messages. Where perhaps Washington had hoped Ma would neutralize the Taiwan question, allowing the U.S. the space to build relations with Beijing, he instead appears to have served another function. A Chinese nationalist being in charge of Taiwan has allowed Beijing to transfer activity, and tensions, to other prospective territorial targets.
The Ma administration’s role of reducing tensions appears to have distracted from Chinese moves to physically manifest a greatly prized hegemonic presence in the South China Sea, the most aggressive expansion of PRC territorial claims since the 1950s. By the time senior director for Asian Affairs on the NSC, Daniel Kritenbrink, had stated that the U.S. welcomed the Ma-Xi meeting and the improvement in cross-strait relations over the past few years, China had already installed military capable airfields and ports on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, and were busily developing a third on Mischief Reef. Having not informed the U.S. sufficiently in advance of his plan to meet President Xi in Singapore, and then flying to Itu Aba Island in a show of sovereignty that China quickly remolded into evidence of cooperation, signs are emerging that Washington’s patience with Ma, like Ma’s term in office, is fast expiring.
With this election, and in the wider region, there are new political, military, environmental, and economic realities on the ground in East Asia. U.S. policy needs to reflect acknowledgement of these realities and evaluate which partners are most likely to actively share its interests in peace, freedom, and trade. Tsai’s administration thus represents an opportunity for Washington. Tsai appears to promise a predictable and mature hand on Taiwan’s rudder, heading an administration whose values and objectives for Taiwan are more aligned with Washington’s. Tsai's administration is an opportunity for the U.S. to work with a low-maintenance and trustworthy ally in the heart of the first island chain, in a critical year before new leadership takes over Capitol Hill in January 2017. The U.S should invest expertise, trust, and time in deepening its official and unofficial relations with Tsai’s Taiwan.