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Taiwan’s Presidential Election: The View from Beijing

Edward Schwarck
Commentary, 18 January 2016
China, Pacific
The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has defeated the Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan’s elections. Beijing’s reaction to the result will depend on how it interprets the DPP’s intentions towards the existing framework defining cross-strait relations.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has swept to power on a wave of discontent over the previous government’s economic performance, as well as widespread anxiety over the pace and scope of Taiwan’s relations with China. Beijing will now plan its response – and scrutinise the new government in Taipei for signs that it is distancing itself from the mainland.

Post-election statements by Beijing make clear that the baseline for maintaining stable cross-strait relations is that the DPP government recognises the ‘1992 Consensus’ – a longstanding verbal agreement that defines Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis the mainland as ‘One China, different interpretations’. Much to Beijing’s displeasure, Ms Tsai has been unwilling to endorse this formulation (though nor has she refuted it), and has opted instead for a vague pledge to ‘maintain the status quo’. This position is more moderate than the one Ms Tsai adopted when last running for president in 2012, when she asserted that the 1992 Consensus ‘did not exist’. It still falls short of Beijing’s basic requirement, however.

There are now three plausible courses of action that Beijing could pursue in response to the Taiwanese election result. 

First, in spite of its uncompromising position on the 1992 Consensus in the build-up to the election, Beijing could accommodate Ms Tsai’s position – perhaps through a new formulation, acceptable to both sides. 

Alternatively, China’s leaders may seek to enforce the red line, and impose minor punitive measures until Ms Tsai provides satisfactory assurances that she respects the 1992 Consensus, or a formula equal to it. 

However, Beijing might also react much more strongly, and impose dramatic costs –such as abandoning the current cross-strait ‘diplomatic truce’, and attempting to win over Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners. Further punishments could involve stemming the flow of tourists and flights across the strait, or further restricting Taiwan’s presence in international organisations. 

When deciding between the three options, Beijing’s choice will largely depend on how much it trusts Ms Tsai’s intentions. Assuming that Taiwan’s new leader maintains her ambiguity over the 1992 Consensus, bridging the gap with Beijing will be difficult – although history suggests that it might not be impossible. For example, Beijing stayed silent when (now outgoing) President Ma Ying-jeou added to the 1992 Consensus of ‘One China, two interpretations’ by stating that the ‘one China’ is the ‘Republic of China’ – Taiwan’s official name. Beijing was prepared to accept this formula because China’s leaders believed that Mr Ma was fundamentally committed to strengthening cross-strait ties. While Ms Tsai’s current position is more unpalatable to Beijing, if provided with the right assurances, Chinese President Xi Jinping may compromise, given the radically altered political landscape he now faces in Taiwan. Indeed, there are signs that mainland attitudes towards the DPP may have changed as the latter has pursued a less-confrontational line. For example, the Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhang Zhijun, met with DPP officials during his last visit to the island in June 2014 – a move that signalled a tentative willingness to work with parties other than the defeated Nationalist Party (KMT).

In the short term, accommodation or small punitive measures by Beijing may be more likely, as anything more bellicose would likely unravel a decade of improvements in cross-strait ties and alienate the Taiwanese population further. Since Beijing’s failed attempt to sway the result of the 1996 presidential elections by test-firing cruise missiles into waters off Taiwan, it has learnt that threats merely cause the Taiwanese public to bristle. 

It is also unlikely that the measured, pragmatic Ms Tsai will provoke Beijing by tinkering with existing formulations. The secretary-general of the DPP acknowledged recently that the party had ‘learnt a lesson’ from the heady years of the last DPP administration, whose moves towards independence created headaches for Taiwan’s main ally, the US – and provoked threats of war from the mainland. 

Furthermore, over the past year Beijing has quietly moderated some of its demands for progress as a DPP election victory seemed increasingly inevitable. The 2015 Work Conference on Taiwan Affairs, for example, generated a policy agenda that was almost entirely economic, with no calls for further political breakthroughs. An unprecedented meeting between leaders Ma and Xi in November 2015 produced little more from Beijing than affirmations of the 1992 Consensus, backstopped with the usual warnings against independence.  

Yet 2015 did produce knee-jerk reactions when politics in Taiwan seemed to veer away from Beijing’s preferred course. The PLA conducted a series of aggressive military exercises in the Taiwan Strait to coincide with a visit by Tsai to Washington in June. And when spooked by Taiwan’s ‘Sunflower’ protest movement and the consequent shelving of an unpopular cross-strait trade agreement in April 2014, President Xi appeared to junk the 1992 Consensus entirely, calling for a Hong Kong-style ‘one country, two systems’ formula. President Ma angrily dismissed the idea as ‘unacceptable’. 

Both events highlight the Taiwan issue’s constant potential to rile conservative elements within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. The months ahead will likely produce some deterioration in cross-strait ties, and Beijing’s response to events will depend on how it interprets the DPP’s underlying motivations. As the post-election dust settles, both sides of the strait would do well to bear each other’s positions in mind, seek compromise and moderation and, in the case of Beijing, respect the choice of the Taiwanese people for a new government with fresh ideas. 

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