This article is reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen's landslide victory in elections Jan. 11 will extend her term by four years, setting the island nation on a course for an extended period of cross-strait tensions with mainland China if, as expected, Beijing maintains its hard-line approach to her administration. Tsai's ruling party also captured a majority in Taiwan's 113-member parliament. The strength of her victory raises questions about how China will choose to deal with her administration while strengthening U.S. options for countering Chinese influence. The Chinese government could now be forced to rethink its completely restrictive policies to take into account the rise of more radical pro-independence factions inside the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and a long-term shift in Taiwan’s political landscape.
Why It Matters
Tsai secured more than 8 million votes among some 14 million Taiwanese voters, a record margin of victory since direct presidential elections began in 1996, and outpaced her main challenger, Han Kuo-yu from Kuomintang, by 2.5 million votes. Concurrently, the DPP is also set to retain its majority in the 113-member Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, even though it lost control of seven more seats than it currently has. The opposition Kuomintang gained three more than its previous total. Minor parties that play a third force in the island’s traditionally bipartisan political landscape made some limited strides in these elections. Turnout also reached a record high of 74.9 percent, reflecting high political awareness among the electorate.
In light of her party's slightly less impressive legislative performance than in past elections, Tsai's landslide win indicated that her approach to relations with Beijing was popular enough to overcome discontent among the electorate over some of the DPP’s domestic policies. Against the backdrop of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests and perceived political interference from Beijing, the result reveals growing resistance among Taiwan's residents to Chinese influence, a feeling only set to grow stronger as the island's younger generation rises.
Given the election campaign’s heavy focus on cross-strait relations, the strength of Tsai's performance plus the extended tenure for the pro-independence DPP deals a blow to Beijing’s hard-line approach in dealing with the ruling party and to its strategy of extending economic incentives to the Taiwanese public to try to win their favor. This will effectively force Beijing to choose between two paths. It could maintain its hard-line approach, or even intensify it, at the risk of strengthening the more radical factions inside the DPP that advocate for independence and stronger ties with the United States. Or, it could choose to deal with the relatively more moderate factions that Tsai represents.
That said, Beijing is most likely to decide to continue to restrict its communications with Taiwan's leaders and follow its isolative and coercive strategy. This means maintaining efforts to poach Taiwanese diplomatic allies or deciding not to renew the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement when the pact expires in June as it seeks to wait out Tsai's term rather than risking its own domestic opposition by altering its stance. If that approach empowers the more radical pro-independence factions in Taiwan, it could trouble cross-strait relations for years to come. Ultimately, that would make Beijing’s already remote chances of achieving its objective of unification even more costly.