Anti-China DPP wins big in Taiwan

The landslide victory of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections has put Sino-Taiwan relations on an uncertain course. The outcome of the two elections is historic; Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in the presidential election makes her Taiwan’s first-ever woman president. As for the general election, her DPP won 68 of the 113 seats up for grabs compared with 35 won by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). This is the first time since the end of the Chinese Civil War that the pro-China KMT has lost its grip over parliament. The DPP is likely to interpret the massive mandate it received in the just-concluded elections as support for its pro-independence policies. This could spur it to adopt confrontationist positions on its relations with China, stirring up cross-strait tensions. This would be unfortunate as relations between Taiwan and China have improved significantly over the past decade when the two sides signed 23 agreements. And in a historic first, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou met China’s President Xi Jinping in Singapore in November.

The DPP must read the message of the mandate carefully. While the people of Taiwan are indeed apprehensive over excessive proximity to Beijing, their vote for the DPP cannot be interpreted as an anti-China vote. Economic problems, especially stagnating incomes and surging housing prices during Ma’s rule was an important reason for voters moving away from the KMT. This together with infighting in the KMT cost the party dearly in the elections. Thus, the DPP’s victory was not so much the outcome of a surge in anti-China feeling as it was a vote for change and economic prosperity. The DPP should therefore avoid unnecessarily needling Beijing.

The last time the DPP controlled the presidency (2000-08) was a period of much unrest in cross-strait relations. However, President-elect Tsai is a cautious politician. Hence, her victory and the DPP’s coming stint at the helm will not necessarily be volatile. The two sides can avoid turbulent relations by drawing on the benefits of cooperation. The DPP should leverage close relations with China to revitalise the stagnant Taiwanese economy which grew at barely 1 per cent in 2015.  As for China, it needs to wake up to the fact that Taiwan’s youth do not see themselves as Chinese but as Taiwanese and that its sabre-rattling only deepens their desperation for distance from China.
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