Taiwan holds elections suffocated by China’s increasingly tight hug

    Taiwan holds elections suffocated by China's increasingly tight hug
    Supporters of candidate Han Kuo-yu in a rally. (Reuters)

    The Taiwanese must choose in elections that will define their future and that, as on previous occasions, are marked by the positions adopted by the leaders towards China

    “Kun” (Caught). It is the character of the year chosen by more than 12 million Chinese and Taiwanese Internet users and the one that best defines the current state of relations between Beijing and Taipei before the decisive elections that Taiwan holds this Saturday. Regardless of the popularity of the candidates or their promises to boost economic growth, Taiwanese should choose in elections that will define their immediate future and that, as on previous occasions, are marked by the positions adopted by elected leaders regarding China.

    The elections are marked by a year, 2019, in which Taiwan continued to lose diplomatic allies in favor of an ascending China until it remained in the current fifteen, as well as the impact on the island of persistent protests in Hong Kong or the greater Approach between Washington and Taipei.

    But save surprise, the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, will revalidate her position at the hands of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), according to the polls, which however question whether she will obtain a large majority. Her independence, although moderate, led Tsai to dynamite during her first term the policy of an approach to Beijing carried out by her predecessor, the now opponent Kuomintang (KMT).

    A disagreement that began when the president unmarked the so-called “principle of one China”, endorsed by the KMT, which prevents Taiwan from being recognized as an independent state by recognizing that there is only one country called China – which covers both the island like mainland China – and that Beijing and Taipei claim their entire territory.

    Isolated by China

    For scholars from the mainland, Tsai’s policy has only managed to isolate the island by limiting exchanges with Beijing, adopting policies that, from their point of view, have tried in vain to weaken Chinese influence in Taiwan.

    “The relations were peaceful until Tsai came to power. If she wins again, they will continue in a kind of ‘cold peace’ or ‘cold confrontation’,” Professor Lin Gang, director of the Center for Taiwanese Studies at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University, for whom ties have deteriorated only because of Tsai’s “restrictive policies.”

    In fact, Beijing has tried to deal with Tsai with its traditional “stick and carrot” strategy, consisting of offering attractive measures aimed at multiplying economic and cultural links between the two sides while influencing its idea of ​​”reunification.”

    Thus, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, refused to rule out the use of force last year, and recalled on several occasions that he will not tolerate any secessionist attempt: “Any action to divide the country is doomed to failure.”

    But that vehemence, according to Taiwanese experts, made Tsai regain the popularity she had lost in the 2018 local elections, where the PDP hit the ground.

    “Tsai has turned it around by stating that it defends the sovereignty of the island so that Taiwanese can preserve freedom and democracy,” says Professor Fan Shih-ping, of the Institute of Political Science of the National University of Taiwan.

    Hong Kong in the rearview mirror

    The protests that broke out seven months ago in Hong Kong seem to have strengthened this hypothesis, given that Tsai found in them a reason to reject the Chinese proposal of reunification through the now questioned model of “one country, two systems.”

    This formula states that Hong Kong is part of China but allows the semi-autonomous territory to enjoy certain freedoms that do not exist in the rest of the country.

    To get out of this crossroads, Tsai opted for civil rights, with renewed support for Aboriginal groups and the LGTBI community, making Taiwan the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage.

    “Taiwan is demonstrating a growing identity of its own, it is setting an example to the Chinese community in the world,” says Sun Kuo-hsiang, an associate professor in the Department of International Affairs of the Taiwanese University of Nanhua.

    But in the eyes of Beijing, although the formula that is applied in Hong Kong does not enjoy popularity in Taiwan, it is the only one possible: “The propaganda and misinformation of the Taiwanese authorities have distorted society, especially after the incidents in Hong Kong,” says Professor Zheng Wensheng of the Institute for Taiwanese Studies of the Chinese University of Xiamen.

    According to the expert, the island can only maintain its freedoms with this model: “Do you prefer in Taiwan ‘a country, a system’? Do you prefer to transform into a socialist system like in mainland China?” Asks the academic from the irony.

    “The elections are not going to change the fact that Taiwan is part of China. Reunification is the most beneficial for Taiwan, it is inevitable and will happen sooner or later. Taiwan will never be able to escape from China,” says Zheng, who adds that a hypothetical The use of force by Beijing will only come if the island proclaims independence or holds a referendum to that effect.

    Diplomatic Siege

    The incursions of Chinese military aeroplanes in Taiwanese airspace increased markedly in 2019, which caused Taiwan to have chosen to buy weapons from the United States, an approach that could enhance Taipei’s role in Washington’s strategies to contain China.

    “As China continues to grow, the United States will become more and more involved in Taiwan. It will not abandon its Pacific pawn. What they want is for Tsai to face China,” according to Zheng.

    Meanwhile, the Chinese diplomatic encirclement has intensified in Tsai’s four-year term, and could play against her: since she came to power in 2016, Taiwan has lost allies to El Salvador, Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, Dominican Republic, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.

    “Tsai has lost seven allies but its approval rating has not diminished. If it happens again, the Taiwanese will not blame it, but their impression on China will become even more negative,” says Fan from Taipei.

    A hypothetical return of the KMT from the hand of its candidate Han kuo-yu, a politician until a relatively unknown year ago, would also not turn relations around.

    In his campaign, Han has advocated supporting the “one China” principle by rejecting possible Taiwanese independence but has also criticized the Chinese proposal for “reunification”: his commitment is to maintain the ‘status quo’ on the island.

    “Han is an atypical politician, he does not represent the traditional KMT elite. If Tsai is re-elected, China can only ask Taiwan to maintain the ‘status quo’ while it continues to strengthen. But if Han is imposed, the Chinese agenda for closer ties it will be even clearer,” concludes Sun.