By Yusuf Khalid
Taiwanese democracy has spoken, and Beijing has erupted in fury. In a highly tense election January 12th, now-incumbent president William Lai won a race with 40% of the vote as the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A centrist force in Taiwanese politics, Lai was able to successfully fight off the Kuomintang (KMT), his closest opponent, against a backdrop of Chinese pressures and interference, and in a continuation of DPP rule since 2016. Lai’s election however is not without its controversy, especially to his mainland neighbours in Beijing whose ire is being drawn by the electoral loss of his KMT opposition.
Why, you may ask? William Lai’s previous outspoken support for Taiwanese independence, which marks him as an enemy to the CCP who believe they have jurisdiction over Taiwan. The history of Taiwan-China relations is fraught with difficulty and tension, stemming from the latter’s founding. Prior to 1949, China was a fragmented country torn between the ruling KMT and the insurgent CCP. With the victory of Communist forces over the KMT that year, the Kuomintang retreated to the small island of Taiwan and proclaimed their own state as the legitimate Chinese republic. Abandoning plans in the 90s to forcibly retake the Chinese mainland, peaceful talks have occurred between the People's Republic and Taiwan on the question of the island's status. Strategies for approaching this however have been varied, ranging from a controversial deepening of economic ties with Beijing to the purported '1992 Consensus'. Detailing a meeting between officials of the respective countries in the said year, the consensus details an agreement on the principle of 'One China' but albeit with different interpretations according to Taiwan. According to China, this would mean a 'One Country, Two Systems' framework as in Hong Kong, where Taiwan would have separate economic and administrative functions to mainland China. Rejection of the 1992 Consensus by Lai's predecessor Tsai Ing-Wen however, also of the DPP, have led to deteriorating relations in contrast to more friendly attitudes previously.
Communist officials in Beijing, who regard Taiwan as a Chinese territory under their control, are thus incensed by Lai's positioning on national independence and rejection of the unification consensus. The elections are characterised as a tussle between war and peace by the rival KMT, with Lai's election representing both an immense provocation for the CCP and a national repositioning on the unification debate. The end result is of little surprise for those on the island, following changing attitudes towards national identity as well as the effectiveness of a unified Chinese state with full integration to CCP-controlled China.
Following trends from 2008 onwards, annual polling research by National Chengchi University show that as of June 2023, 62.8% of people on the island see themselves as fully Taiwanese. This represents an evolution that has seen Taiwanese identity supplant more traditional views on a dual Taiwanese and Chinese identity for ROC citizens. In addition, the encroachment on Hong Kong sovereignty from 2019 onwards, a territory subscribed to the 'One Country, Two Systems' framework, has helped shape attitudes against Chinese sincerity that Taiwanese sovereignty would be respected. The immediate response to Lai's election in the past few days is what I would argue is typical: little to mute. The need to showcase force has led to a flurry of activity from the People’s Republic, notably with joint combat patrols off of Taiwan and a multitude of planes being sent into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification zone. However although sounding serious, these actions are little more than symbolic encroachments to highlight disapproval and with little real effect. Increased escalation furthermore seems incredibly unlikely at this stage.
Domestic worries over a slowing economy and the need to be more calculated in such a contentious situation act as the foreground to Beijing’s patience as it hides in the shadows. The election of Taiwan's most pro-independence candidate and shifting attitudes within the country however do show, I would say, a further separation from a past era of warming cross-strait relations to a more colder approach. Lai's predecessor Tsai Ing-Wen, again of the DPP, was also comparatively more confrontational and rejected a prior consensus of there being 'One China' in addition to a Two Systems framework.
Much like then as now, relations will be icier, although not leading to any dystopian scenario. Past cross-strait relations have relied on delicate balancing acts that border on occasional outburst but manage to retain a degree of peace, dependent on a series of careful diplomatic acts and words. William Lai however comes closer than any before him to breaking this consensus, especially when compounded with Xi's reunification aspirations, but knows what is at stake. Lai himself has moderated his prior independence credentials by highlighting his country's present independence and sovereignty instead of further action.
Xi's aspirations and Lai's passions may clash, but any immediate confrontation feels nothing short of unrealistic. Assertions of strong force from the mainland may be more occasional and rhetoric more emboldened, yet a future of Chinese-Taiwanese relations seems awfully similar to the past 7 years of DPP rule.
IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons