Praised by the West, rejected by China: Tsai Ing-wen re-elected in Taiwan
The re-election of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen on Saturday has been seen by most in the West as a vote for democracy and liberal values, and a clear rejection of mainland China’s model of “one country, two systems.” Tsai was reelected for another four years in a landslide victory, gaining over eight million votes – a record number. Her party also won a majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament.
This is despite – or perhaps because of - pressure from China. Since Tsai was first elected four years ago, Beijing has applied a number of tactics to achieve its aim of unifying Taiwan with the mainland, including refusing to speak to the Taiwanese government directly, isolating Taiwan internationally, sending intimidating statements, and putting pressure on Taiwanese businesses. In a speech just a year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a veiled threat of military action. At the same time, Beijing has attempted to strike a more conciliatory note, offering Taiwanese companies and citizens various benefits.
The election result means that neither coercion nor the softer approach have worked. The Taiwanese electorate refused to be intimidated and, against the backdrop of the protests in Hong Kong, did not deem credible Beijing’s attempts to appear conciliatory. China’s predictable reaction was to claim, falsely, that Tsai’s victory was due to “dirty tactics such as cheating, repression and intimidation to get votes.” An op-ed by Xinhua also referred to “Western (external) political forces,” in particular the United States, meddling in the elections in an attempt to prevent rapprochement between Taiwan and mainland China.
The election result is, however, unlikely to lead to any major change in China’s policy towards Taiwan. The goal of reclaiming Taiwan for the mainland is based on a mix of patriotic legacy and geopolitical considerations. But with more pressing issues to tackle, China is unlikely to go as far as using military force in the near future. It is also unlikely that there will be any major change from the new Taiwanese government. Tsai is a defender of the status quo and de facto independence. Despite her new mandate and some domestic pressure, she is unlikely to go further and seek formal independence. And while the relationship with the PRC was the main topic during the election campaign, Tsai now also has to deliver on issues like economic and social policy. Nevertheless, in a press conference after the election results, she announced that she will actively promote Taiwan’s responsibility and contributions in international organizations.
“For the West, the election makes clear that this is a conflict that isn’t going away. Every government in Europe has to think about what they are willing to do to support Taiwan. Tensions are going to rise. They must ask themselves how they will handle increasing demands from the Chinese side to isolate Taiwan in international institutions.” MERICS expert Mareike Ohlberg.