The victory of Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential elections has put the spotlight back on cross-Strait relations in East Asia, as Taiwanese voters chose in favour of a return of the hard-line pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to power. Becoming the first female Taiwanese President by winning 56.1% of the vote, Tsai Ing-wen overwhelmingly triumphed past her nearest rival, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang (KMT), who got 30.1% of the vote share. The KMT and its conservative approach of attempting to “normalise” relations with Mainland China apparently made it increasingly unpopular with the Taiwanese voter of late. I noticed in my last two trips to Taiwan in October 2014 and June 2015 that the second presidential term of Ma Ying-jeou and his administration’s policy of closer economic engagement with China swelled up scepticism surrounding Taiwan’s political future with the Mainland.
Given that Taiwan remains the most sensitive political issue for Mainland China, the DPP’s landslide win puts the onus back on its long-standing stance on pushing for independence from Mainland China. Not surprisingly, this perennially raises political temperatures in cross-Strait relations. The Taiwan Work Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council released a statement through the official Xinhua press, declaring adherence to the 1992 Consensus and “resolutely opposing any form of secessionist activities seeking Taiwan independence” — primarily indicating that as long as political parties and groups in Taiwan continue to recognise the principle that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan belong to One China, cross-Strait political engagement and exchange shall likely continue.
In addition to this veiled political warning, the cyber netizen brigade in Mainland China launched a tirade against President Tsai within a few hours of the declaration of the results, by flooding her Facebook page with over 40,000 antagonising and provocative comments. It appeared a well-coordinated effort presumably using VPN technology to bypass China’s Great Firewall — a strict censorship mechanism that blocks Facebook, Google, Twitter among thousands of other international websites. Mainlanders engaged in online debates to counter pro-Taiwan independence comments by using the simplified Chinese character script. A post congratulated Tsai Ing-wen “on becoming secretary and governor of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee People’s Government of Taiwan Province”. Another comment bluntly challenged Tsai and the DPP, “… If you have guts, declare independence”. Highlighting that the Taiwanese people enjoy the choice to exercise their freedoms, something that mainlanders lack, President Tsai posted on her Facebook page, “...the greatness of this country lies in how every single person can exercise his or her own rights.”
As for Tsai, her biggest challenge would undoubtedly be securing stability by maintaining a status-quoist approach in cross-Strait ties. However, the stability paradigm does not remain confined between Mainland China and Taiwan, with the US automatically getting drawn into the conflict in wake of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which seeks to ensure that Mainland China’s approach to the resolution of the Taiwan issue would be peaceful. Meanwhile, the Act also created domestic legal authority for Washington to conduct unofficial relations with Taiwan, and has principally governed US arms sales to Taipei since 1979. According to the Act, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capability.
In this light, the Barack Obama administration’s latest authorisation of selling $1.83 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in December 2015 predictably drew a swift rebuke from China. Lodging an official protest, Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang stated that Taiwan was “an inalienable part of China’s territory” and that Beijing strongly opposed the sale… To safeguard our national interests, China has decided to take necessary measures, including imposing sanctions against companies involved in the arms sale.” Incidentally, this is the first US arms shipment to Taipei in four years and includes two US Navy guided Oliver Hazard Perry class missile frigates, amphibious assault vehicles, and anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems.
The landslide victory of Tsai Ing-wen is not merely an expression of voters’ disappointment with the KMT and the policies of Ma Ying-jeou specifically in reference to the predicated trajectory of Taiwan’s overall relationship with Mainland China. The latest election results being Taiwan’s third peaceful transfer of political power reflect cementing of Taiwan’s choice of a model for political governance, i.e., consolidating its faith in democracy and a democratic way of life with each passing decade.