Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
The Taiwanese election on Saturday, in which Tsai Ing-wen won a second term as president, shows democracy maturing in Taiwan. Political power has now changed hands three times between the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive parties since direct presidential elections began in 1996, with each winner being elected to two four-year terms.
Cross-strait relations played a dominant role in the election. In her acceptance speech, Ms. Tsai said her DPP administration had been “willing to maintain healthy exchanges with China” and, despite “China’s diplomatic pressure and military threats,” her government had kept up “a non-provocative, non-adventurist attitude that has prevented serious conflict from breaking out in the Taiwan Strait.”
That clearly isn’t the way Beijing sees the situation. A Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, called on the international community to “understand and support the just cause of Chinese people to oppose the secessionist activities for ‘Taiwan independence’ and realize national reunification.”
The Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, which sets policies regarding Taiwan, issued a statement saying the Chinese government was willing to “work with its compatriots in Taiwan to promote the peaceful development of cross-strait relations and advance the peaceful reunification of the homeland.”
Neither the Foreign Affairs Ministry nor the Taiwan Affairs Office mentioned Hong Kong in their statements. But Hong Kong was a key factor in the outcome of the presidential election, with the anti-government protests there boosting Ms. Tsai’s stock as concern rose in Taiwan over China’s “one country, two systems” principle, which is also meant to apply to the island.
Ms. Tsai has had a poor relationship with the mainland from the beginning of her presidency because she declined to accept the “one China” position of her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang. As a result, Beijing cut off its dialogue with Taipei and has put economic, political and military pressure on Taiwan.
The latest Chinese statements suggest Beijing is likely to continue its hardline policy.
But continuing this policy – perhaps even adding to the pressure – is likely to be counterproductive, further alienating the people of Taiwan.
Ms. Tsai’s mainland policy is also bringing her a host of problems – political and economic. Due to geographical, cultural and linguistic bonds, the Chinese mainland is Taiwan’s natural economic partner. But Ms. Tsai is seeking new partners to avoid being dependent on the mainland and thus vulnerable to its pressure.
It is certainly positive that Beijing’s stated policy remains peaceful reunification, its position since the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping was the paramount leader. Under Chairman Mao Zedong, China vowed to “liberate” Taiwan. However, Mao told Henry Kissinger, U.S. president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, in 1972 that China could wait 100 years to be reunified with Taiwan.
The policy of reunification through “one country, two systems” formulated under Mr. Deng was first applied to Hong Kong and Macau. Now, China is eager to complete the task by bringing Taiwan into the fold.
But while Hong Kong and Macau were colonies of Britain and Portugal, respectively, Taiwan in 1945 was returned to the Republic of China by Japan and has been governed by Chinese officials since then. There is no foreign government to deal with, only fellow Chinese, from Beijing’s perspective.
After the Communists won the civil war in 1949, the Kuomintang government of President Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taipei and, for many years, vowed to reunite China by counterattacking the mainland. So both the Communists and the Kuomintang agreed that Taiwan and the mainland were parts of one country. But the latter long ago abandoned that policy and, in any event, is no longer in power.
Now that Taiwan is a democracy, no government can agree to reunification without obtaining the consent of the people. This means Beijing has to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan. Economic sanctions, military manoeuvres and political pressure are unlikely to achieve this goal. This can only be done by offering carrots, not brandishing sticks.
Last week’s election shows that most Taiwanese have little interest in reunification. Peaceful reunification by definition is a long-term project, and soft power is required.
This is a good time for Taiwan, too, to reassess its long-term relationship with the mainland. The island cannot change its geographical location. Both Beijing and Taipei should rethink cross-strait issues. Neither side should put its crucial cross-straits policy on autopilot. That course would only lead them into a blind alley.