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Instability in the Strait: Taiwan’s 2020 election


Instability in the Strait: Taiwan’s 2020 election

Taiwan 2016 presidential election / Taiwan's 2020 election


Taiwan’s upcoming general election will take place amidst ever more precarious cross-strait relations.


– China will be attentive to Taiwan’s pre-election polls before deciding on how next to pressure the administration
– The four most promising candidates are DPP President Tsai Ing-wen, party rival William Lai, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu and independent Ko Wen-je
– Even if Han or Ko win the election, Taiwan’s rancorous relationship with the mainland may not be fully redressed
– China is likely to expand and intensify its tools of coercion and intimidation before the election

Taiwan’s next general election, scheduled for January 2020, is likely to create instability across the Taiwan Strait. While the election is still months ahead and party primaries are incomplete, promising candidates have developed their own cross-strait policies. These form the basis of possibilities surrounding China’s approach to relations with the victor, from continued attempts at peaceful reunification to the threat and use of force.


The most promising candidates to contest Taiwan’s upcoming election will be incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rival William La, the main opposition Kuomintang Party’s (KMT) Han Kuo-yu and independent Ko Wen-je. These individuals emerged from the November nine-in-one elections with the most significant results.

Ko Wen-je is a ‘dark horse’ who represents himself as an anti-establishment politician, an alternative for Taiwanese who have grown tired of the ‘Blue-Green’ (unification/independence) political divide. He hit the scene with the 2014 Taipei mayoral election and, despite his modest performance in the nine-in-one election, has announced his plan to contest the general election as an independent. In terms of cross-strait relations, he believes “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family” and has outlined a foreign policy of “pro-US, but China-friendly,” which allows for a degree of pragmatic balancing between the US and China despite Taiwan’s kinship with the mainland. Ko believes the biggest reason why Beijing, the DPP and the KMT failed to agree on the meaning of the ‘1992 Consensus’ is a lack of trust, which he aims to rebuild through his “Five Mutual” principles: familiarisation, understanding, respect, cooperation and the willingness to forgive and tolerate.

Han Kuo-yu has not confirmed that he will run for president but there are strong indications of him doing so. If he does, Han will most likely win the KMT primaries due to his immense contribution to the party’s 2018 take-over of a twenty-year stronghold for the DPP, the Kaoshiung municipality. During the November election, Han exploited years of Taiwanese disillusionment with DPP economic mismanagement with a pledge to ‘make Taiwan rich again’. He has proposed re-opening cross-strait dialogue and being friendly and open to China to harness trade and investment. Han believes it is possible to persuade Chinese President Xi Jinping to revert his narrowed interpretation of the 1992 consensus to the earlier shared understanding between the KMT and CCP of ‘One China, Different Interpretation’. In a recent speech at Harvard University, Han noted how Xi has been tolerant of the KMT when ex-president and former KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou was in power. But Han also cautions against Beijing’s attempts to “recapture” Taiwan and affirms the Taiwanese determination to pursue their own democracy, suggesting that he is unlikely to follow in Ma’s footsteps in ‘selling’ Taiwan’s democracy when furthering economic engagement with China.

As for Tsai, her overall approval rating has declined after the DPP’s crippling performance during the November election, which led to her resignation as party chairman. However, she reaped significant gains from Xi’s address at the 40th anniversary of ‘Message to Compatriots in Taiwan’ by portraying herself as the foremost defender of Taiwan’s democracy. Recent Chinese aggression, including People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter jets transgressing the ‘median line’ in the Strait, has allowed Tsai to gain political points by promising to forcefully expel Chinese forces the next time they encroach on the island.

However, Tsai’s unwillingness to act even tougher on China has caused a split in the pan-Green camp. Pan-Green traditionalists (radical pro-independence supporters) have aligned with William Lai, who is more aggressive to the question of Taiwan’s independence. In his first administrative report to the Legislative Yuan, Lai boldly declared himself “a political worker who advocates for Taiwan independence.” He has since moderated his position to being a “Taiwanese independence worker” rather than an advocate for de jure independence and has proposed building Taiwan’s de facto independence through a pragmatic, democratic process that safeguards the freedom and right of the Taiwanese to decide their future. Lai could potentially gain support from the ‘Formosa Alliance‘, an independence-minded group that recently broke away from the DPP in calling for a referendum and name change in Taiwan’s international participation.


NTU Medical Professor Ko Wen je Talks in a Workshop in Taipei / Taiwan's 2020 election
Photo: othree / Flickr

Given these distinct approaches between the four Taiwanese presidential candidates, China is more likely to respond aggressively to Tsai’s and Lai’s campaigns. It is least likely to toughen up on Ko, whose awareness of kinship aligns well with Xi’s position. Under Ko, Taiwan would most likely advance the promotion of culture, inter-marriage and historical ties with the mainland, which are tools China has been employing to bring about peaceful reunification.

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However, Ko has not addressed how exactly his “Five Mutual” principles will answer Xi’s demand to accept his version of the 1992 consensus as the basis for reviving cross-strait dialogue. Accepting Xi’s version would be committing political suicide as it implies deference to Beijing. Holding an ambiguous line, however, may not be enough. Indeed, Tsai’s attempt to do this, by categorically rejecting it as an open-ended discussion while vowing to “cherish” the process, failed to reassure China. Ko could only hope that Beijing refrains from making explicit demands out of goodwill for his tacit willingness to further the ‘Sinification’ of Taiwan. Xi’s meeting with former KMT Chairman Lien Chen in July 2018, for example, in which Xi did not specify ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in his 1992 consensus, is a possible way to save face.

Under Han Kuo-yu, China would likely engage peacefully with Taiwan, albeit with occasional use of coercive means to signal displeasure. Beijing may, as Han believes, mute calls for ‘One Country, Two Systems’. It could potentially exploit Han’s desire for cross-strait economic engagement to advance its influence into Taiwanese provinces and towns by economically benefitting those that support its demands and sanctioning those that oppose it. But Han’s recognition of Taiwan’s democratic consolidation and the Chinese threat to recapture Taiwan suggests that he will react defensively against attempts by Beijing to erode Taiwan’s institutions. The relationship between Han and mainland officials would therefore not be as cordial as during Ma’s years of cross-strait engagement.


The campaign rally of Han Kuo yu in Fengshan Kaohsiung / Taiwan's 2020 election
Photo: Xu Ning/Voice of America

Should Tsai be re-elected, Beijing will most likely continue to suspend cross-strait dialogue and employ non-peaceful means to compel Taiwan into accepting Xi’s version of the 1992 consensus. It would do so more under Lai due to his more explicit remarks on Taiwanese independence. A continuation of DPP leadership into the second term could induce Beijing to believe that its peaceful means of reunification will not be effectual for the next four years. Given the mainland’s growing military confidence, the tools of coercion and intimidation will not be limited to influence operations, diplomatic isolation and economic coercion. The PLA could be emboldened to expand the scope and intensity of its military operations to pressure Taiwan into compliance, such as gradually encroaching on Taiwan’s shores with routine ‘encirclement’ patrols beyond the tacitly agreed-upon median line, risking collisions with Taiwanese forces.

Tools of coercion and intimidation could be deployed well ahead of the election. As the months prior to Tsai’s presidency showed, pre-election polls that demonstrate signs of imminent victory by pro-independence candidates could prompt Beijing to act aggressively to sway Taiwanese voters. But in doing so it could consolidate the fear of Chinese sabotaging Taiwan’s democracy, thus encouraging voters to align closer with Tsai and Lai and undermining Beijing’s own objective to thwart their candidacy. Misperceptions and misinterpretations of signals and threats could, therefore, provoke a precarious situation wrought with the risk of military confrontation.

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