Beijing bristles as Taiwan prepares to elect pro-independence opposition

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs  
July 24, 2015 

Taiwan's DPP leader Tsai_Ing-wen in 2008 Photo by MiNe via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Taiwan’s DPP leader Tsai_Ing-wen in 2008. Photo by MiNe via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Taiwan’s voters are preparing for a rocky ride as they appear set to elect an opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration dedicated to preserving the independence of the island and its 23 million people.

If the voters in next year’s presidential election do what they are now telling pollsters they intend, the result will excite anger in Beijing and send a frisson of anxiety through the corridors of power in Washington. Through no fault of their own, an assertion by Taiwanese of their independence and nationality by voting for the DPP will add to the already heightened risk of conflict in Asia as the Chinese regime attempts to prop up its waning political legitimacy by pursing spurious territorial claims. There is no historic, legal, political or moral backing for China’s claim to own Taiwan. But the island’s position off the central Chinese coast and its military alliance with the United States make it a strategic barrier to Beijing’s aspirations for military predominance in the western Pacific.

Since 2008, when the Kuomintang (KMT) under the leadership of the vapid President Ma Ying-jeou returned to power after eight years of DPP rule, Beijing has attempted to neutralize Taiwan by ensnaring it in economic ties. Most recently, it has tried to push Ma into moving towards a political union under the “one country, two systems” rubric used when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Ma opened Taiwan to a multitude of economic links with China, claiming this traffic calmed tensions across the Taiwan Strait. But, as so often seems to be the outcome of economic ties with China, Taiwan has seen growing disparity between the rich and the rest. The wealth from trade has poured into a few hands, while most of the population faces stagnating wages, or unemployment.

At the same time, Beijing’s adamant refusal to allow Hong Kong to progress towards meaningful democracy has alarmed Taiwanese, who have had a fully functioning democracy since 1996. About 90 per cent of Taiwanese consistently say they want to keep their independence and want no truck with political union with China. Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong and the island’s general experience over the last eight years of closer links to China has only reinforced these sentiments. Ma has had no choice but to stall the political agenda, much to the annoyance of China’s President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Xi has made the belligerent pursuit of China’s claims to Taiwan and islands in the South China and East China seas a hallmark of his administration.

The KMT got a clear picture of the way the wind of public opinion was blowing in November last year when the party was trounced in local government elections.

Now polls are predicting a clear win for DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen in next January’s presidential elections. Her popularity is consistently running 20 to 30 percentage points ahead of Hung Hsiu-chu, chosen last weekend to be candidate for the KMT.

The party seems to have embraced a death wish with the selection of Hung, who is known as “Little Hot Pepper” for her habit of explosive pronouncements, and beside whom Donald Trump seems a sage statesman. Hung appears to be totally out of touch with mainstream Taiwanese thought, especially on the issue of relations with China. In a recent interview with a newspaper owned by the propaganda department of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – not a wise invitation to accept to begin with – she spoke strongly in favour of Taiwan embarking on political negotiations with Beijing as soon as possible. She has also displayed overt anti-Americanism and advocated ending arms purchases from the U.S., a cornerstone of the island’s security policy. And Hung has dismissed the fact that China has over 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan – the most obvious poised muscle behind Beijing’s perpetual threat to invade the island — as a matter of no consequence and urged her fellow citizens to “stop complaining.”

So it will be a wonder if Hung can close the gap and overtake Tsai, who ran against Ma for the DPP in the 2012 presidential race, but whose political substance and composure have matured significantly in the years since.

There are, however, likely to be external forces brought to bear on the election from both Beijing and Washington, and it is as yet uncertain how the voters will react to these pressures.

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2014. Photo by Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

In early July China’s state-run television network, CCTV, ran an item about a PLA military exercise in which troops storming a large and ornate building that resembled the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan, above. Photo by Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

It looks as though China’s attempts to twist the outcome of Taiwan’s January election are going to be just as brutish as in the past. Earlier this month China’s state-run television network, CCTV, ran an item about a PLA military exercise in which the troops were tasked with taking control of a major city. The video accompanying the report showed Chinese troops storming a large and ornate building. The building was very distinctive and anyone familiar with the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, would see instantly that it was a mock-up of the Presidential Office. There’s no way that this can be interpreted as anything other than a thuggish threat.

In the past, the pressures from Beijing have been equally crude and bullying. In 1996 Beijing tried to disrupt the island’s first fully democratic presidential by firing unarmed missiles into the sea-lanes approaching Taiwan’s major ports of Kaohsiung and Keelung. Beijing’s message was that it could blockade Taiwan and destroy its economy if the islanders didn’t give up on this democracy nonsense.

During the 2000 election, when there was a good chance, as happened, that the DPP led by Chen Shui-bian would win, then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji issued a blustering warning. He predicted “no good ending for those involved in Taiwan independence,” and said Taiwan had better start acquiescing soon to unification with China, because Beijing’s patience was wearing thin.

In the early 2000s Beijing didn’t have to keep repeating its constant pledge to invade the island. It had President George W Bush to do its dirty work for it. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Bush was so preoccupied with the Middle East he was prepared to make almost any concessions to Beijing to keep the security climate in Asia calm. The Bush administration not only bought Beijing’s aid by declaring some groups of Muslim Uighers in the Chinese-occupied territory of Xinjiang to be terrorists, by word and deed it also undermined Taiwan’s Chen administration and kept it off balance. Washington’s fear was that Chen would precipitate a crisis in Asia by declaring legal independence in an attempt to break out of the diplomatic enclosure in which Beijing has Taiwan penned.

Taiwanese are very sensitive to the attitudes in Washington. If China does attempt to invade Taiwan, the islanders will depend for their survival on Washington’s willingness to come to their aid. Keeping the U.S. an eager friend is therefore a priority for Taiwanese voters.

These sensitivities had much to do with the victory for Ma in 2008 on pledges to lessen tensions with Beijing by taking down long-standing barriers to trade, investment and direct contact across the Taiwan Strait.

The anxieties about Washington’s support were still evident in the 2012 elections, especially as the DPP’s candidate Tsai had a history as a bureaucrat of designing policies which, while they promoted the independence aspirations of the vast majority of Taiwanese, irritated Beijing no end.

Since then Tsai has refined her position, though Beijing still believes she is a separatist bent on getting international recognition for Taiwan’s independence. She now emphasises maintaining the “status quo,” which actually means keeping Taiwan’s independence, but which sounds a lot less aggressive and threatening than her old position of insisting that there is “one country on each side of the (Taiwan) Strait.” She has also made a point during a visit to the U.S. earlier this year of reassuring Washington that under her leadership Taiwan will be “a reliable partner … in ensuring peace and stability in the region.”

The tide of attitudes towards China in U.S. corridors of power is running much more in her favour than it was for Chen Shui-bian. Suspicion about Beijing’s evident imperial ambitions is rife in Washington and much effort is being put into marshalling American allies in Asia to contain China’s efforts to become the dominant power in the region. Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and even Washington’s “new best friend” Vietnam are all being urged to do their bit to present a united front against Beijing. Tsai lining up to join the cause is not going unnoticed.

So Washington may choose in the run-up to January’s Taiwan election to refrain from delivering the not-so-subtle-comments of distaste that it did during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency.

How President Xi in Beijing will react to Tsai victory in Taiwan, if that’s what happens, will most likely depend on the state of domestic politics. Since he took over China’s two top jobs – the presidency and the far more important and powerful leadership of the Chinese Communist Party – nearly three years ago, Xi has concentrated on consolidating his personal authority. Xi has managed to gather more personal power into his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. His anti-corruption drive has been used to purge his opponents in the party. His on-going massive crackdown on dissidents and potential political opponents is the most brutal since the 1989 nation-wide uprising. His aggressive pursuit of territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines has burnished Xi’s nationalist credentials with the public. But many long-term China watchers are now saying Xi’s lunge for power has been so strong that it has taken the country back from authoritarianism to the much more severe totalitarianism. Others say simply that Xi’s China is a fascist state.

But Xi’s power is brittle because the Chinese economy can no longer grow significantly without serious political reform, and Xi refuses to contemplate that. It is now doubtful the Chinese economy will be able to meet the aspirations of the bulk of the Chinese people, so Xi is left with only repression and the fostering of intense nationalism as levers to justify his right to rule.

So the intensity of Xi’s reaction to the election of Tsai, if that’s what happens, will likely be a measure of how insecure he feels.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” Published by Palgrave Macmillan of New York.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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