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Elections in Taiwan: “China has miscalculated with its threats”

Presidential and legislative elections take place in Taiwan on Saturday. According to the latest polls, President Tsai Ing-wen looks likely to keep her office. The outcome of the vote will have a significant influence on the island state's relations with the People's Republic of China, which have recently been very strained.

MERICS expert Mareike Ohlberg, analyst in the research area Public Policy and Society, answers questions on the issue.

Would you go so far as to say that Tsai Ing-wen could benefit from the protests in Hong Kong?

Tsai’s approval ratings have risen dramatically over the last year. Many observers attribute this to the fact that the protests in Hong Kong have made clear to the Taiwanese people what the consequences would be for them of unification with the mainland. However, the “one country, two systems” model has never really been considered an attractive option by many people in Taiwan. Other factors have also played a role – China’s President Xi Jinping’s bullying tone, domestic political factors, and mistakes made by rival candidate Han Kuo-yu.

Will generational differences play a big role in the outcome of the election? According to surveys, young voters in particular are in favor of Taiwan’s independence.

It depends how many of these young voters actually cast their vote. In 2016 the election turnout of young voters was much lower than that of older voters. That is partly because the Taiwanese electoral system does not allow absentee voting and requires citizens to return to their home country to vote. That particularly affects young Taiwanese who are living and working abroad. But in view of the growing political awareness, more young people may decide to take the flight back to Taiwan this year.

To what extent has the mainland deliberately attempted to influence the election campaign with misinformation or bullying?

In a speech at the beginning of last year President Xi Jinping adopted an aggressive tone when he announced that he would unite the two countries through military force if necessary. This is a position that the Communist Party has taken in the past, but this speech caused quite a stir. The speech probably had the aim of intimidating Taiwan’s population into supporting a more Beijing-friendly policy. At the time, it clearly had the opposite effect.

There are, of course, other channels of influence, one of which is influence and misinformation through media, including social media. We know that there is a large apparatus of online commentators in China who comment on articles on the internet and post their own statements in social media. There are whole departments dedicated to this in China, some of which specialize on Taiwan. These people sometimes write expressly in traditional Chinese characters.

To what extent is Beijing reflecting on the fact that its own policy has achieved the opposite of what it was supposed to achieve? Can you see any change of mind?

I don’t see any sign currently that the Chinese leadership is fundamentally rethinking its approach. This is partly because in the 1990s, when the Chinese adopted a tone which, from their point of view, was more conciliatory, the party failed to achieve what it wanted. As a result, over the last two decades, accommodating Taiwan politically, or negotiating under conditions that have not been laid down by the Communist Party, is simply not an option. I do not think that will change in the foreseeable future. There is no one on the domestic political scene who could bring about such a change of course. It would be politically very risky for anyone who tried to do so.

How close is Han Kuo-yu, the presidential candidate of the opposition party Kuomintang, to Beijing?

Like his party, the Kuomintang, Han generally wants to maintain closer contacts with Beijing and is therefore considered the preferred candidate by the mainland. He has met with politicians from the People's Republic in the past. There are also reports that his campaign to become mayor of Kaohsiung City in 2018 was supported by a cyber-group from the mainland. However, the fact that Han has clearly distanced himself from the “one country, two systems” model shows how unpopular this option is for Taiwanese voters.

Do you expect immediate threats or sanctions from China if Tsai Ing-wen wins on Saturday?

I expect some smaller, symbolic threats. There will be a continuation or temporary escalation of the current policy: threating language, efforts to woo countries that still recognize Taiwan diplomatically, even more pressure on foreign companies to describe Taiwan as a “province of China”, and possibly harassment of Taiwanese companies on the mainland. Although a military escalation or fundamental change of policy cannot be completely ruled out, I consider it unlikely.

How would an election victory by Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party affect the overall situation in the Pacific?

This should not fundamentally change the situation in the Pacific in the short run. Taiwan and the U.S. will continue to work together as they have in the past. Arms sales to Taiwan will continue, and there may possibly also be joint military exercises. Even though a military invasion is unlikely at present, all sides are increasing preparations for the worst case.

This interview or excerpts may be quoted with proper attribution.

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