Commentary: Taiwan opposition parties’ joint election bid is an opportunity for China
As the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People’s Party unite in a joint campaign ahead of next year’s presidential election, Beijing eyes closer cross-strait relations, says Karishma Vaswani for Bloomberg Opinion.
SINGAPORE: It’s been a good week for China’s Xi Jinping. He’s made his first visit to the United States in six years. He’s signed a number of deals with US President Joe Biden, dialling down the acrimonious tone the two countries have had recently.?The leaders agreed?to resume high-level military communications,?combat?fentanyl and open?a dialogue on artificial intelligence.
And finally -?a win closer to home.?Taiwan’s two key opposition parties standing for January’s presidential election have decided to team up, potentially paving the way for smoother cross-strait relations.?
New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT) and?Ko Wen-je of the recently formed but increasingly popular?Taiwan People’s Party?announced their plans on Wednesday (Nov 15),?although it is not clear yet which of their two nominees would head the campaign as the presidential candidate.
To paraphrase a cliche, the best kind of war,?according to?Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, is the kind where you don’t have to do any fighting at all to get to victory. If Beijing’s ultimate goal is unification with Taiwan through peaceful means, then the island’s opposition parties just gave China a much better shot at that prospect.?
CROSS-STRAIT ENGAGEMENT A KEY ELECTORAL CONCERN
The development “will no doubt please Beijing,” says?Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist with the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “China will see this alliance as a window of opportunity to push for more cross-strait engagement, and will have every reason to make things easier not harder for this candidacy.”
Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election will be the region’s most consequential.?Whoever wins?will set its course with the world - and most importantly where it sits in the fraught US-China relationship.
Voters are choosing between the ruling?Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that says Taiwan is essentially already a?sovereign nation, and opposition parties that have advocated for closer ties with Beijing, calling for varying degrees of engagement.??
Up until the announcement of this tie-up, there were four candidates:?Hou?and Ko,?Vice President William Lai Ching-te of the DPP, and?Taiwanese billionaire and Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou.
JUDGING IF CANDIDATES ARE TOO CLOSELY TIED TO BEIJING
Politics always makes for strange bedfellows -?just look at the shock re-emergence of David Cameron in the United Kingdom this past week. The coming together of Taiwan’s opposition politicians is no less significant, given that the stakes are so high. ?
While the economy and jobs will be key issues for the electorate, how the island manages China is always a concern for the public.?Winning over young voters is?seen as vital for a successful presidential strategy.
While most Taiwanese don’t want war with China, neither do they want Beijing to run things on the island.?Increasingly, there is a strong sense of Taiwanese identity and candidates will be judged on?whether they are too closely tied?to the mainland.??
“Even if the KMT/TPP win,?they know that they must be cautious on ties with China due to the nature of public opinion,”?Dafydd Fell, Professor in Comparative Politics at SOAS University of London, told me. “If China wants to support the KMT/TPP camp then it would be best not to conduct military exercises or issue threats to Taiwan's voters, as these tend to backfire.”
The current status quo, where incursions into Taiwanese airspace occur almost daily, is unsustainable. Dialogue is necessary.
There have been no direct high-level communications between Taipei and Beijing since?since?2016, when President?Tsai Ing-wen?came to power. She refused to kowtow to China or accept its position that the island is part of Chinese territory, although she has periodically called for the resumption of bilateral talks.
Beijing, for its part, is adamant that there is only “one China,”?and that Taiwan is a part of it, subscribing to a policy known as the?One China principle. Under Xi, the calls for eventual “unification” with the mainland have gotten more strident.?
OPPOSITION LEADERS FAR MORE PALATABLE FOR CHINA
The two opposition party candidates could change the tone of the relationship.?KMT’s Hou has campaigned on the fact that he is the one who?will improve cross-strait relations, and open up dialogue between the two sides. He’s been clear?about supporting the?1992 consensus, a vague understanding?between the Communist Party of China and the KMT, where both sides agree?they belong to the same country, even if they disagree on what that means.?
Meanwhile, TPP’s Ko says he will use “deterrence and communication” as his China policy, and simultaneously increase defence spending, while engaging in with Beijing.?
Both would be far more palatable for China to deal with than DPP’s Lai.
There is no guarantee of course that they will win, nor is it clear which of the two will lead the alliance. An announcement is expected Saturday.
Even if a KMT/TPP government might ease cross-straits tensions temporarily, it will “eventually have to fend off pressures from Beijing to venture into more difficult political discussions, which will be a hard-sell domestically,” Ivy Kwek, China Fellow with the International Crisis Group,?says.?
Those difficult discussions will no doubt focus on how much control China has over what goes on in Taiwan, although neither of the opposition parties have suggested in any way the island’s sovereignty is up for grabs -?it would be politically foolish?to do that.??
But if avoiding a Chinese invasion and reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait?is the objective, then the island’s opposition parties may present the best possible shot at that yet -?as long as they keep the electorate’s distinct identity in mind.??