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opinion

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Taiwan’s presidential election is coming up in January. And China is going to great lengths to prevent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from winning a second term.

This past summer, China ended individual tourist travel and cut group tours, putting economic pressure on Taiwan. On the cultural side, it banned mainland and Hong Kong film studios from participating in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards ceremony.

China is also manipulating the Taiwan media. The Financial Times reported in July that editors at the China Times, one of Taiwan’s largest newspapers, hold daily discussions with mainland officials about the themes of their reporting. Reuters reported that Beijing was paying top dollar to Taiwan journalists for favourable stories.

Militarily, China has halted its exercises around Taiwan so as not to give Ms. Tsai an excuse to stir up anti-China sentiment during the campaign.

But the most obvious – and widely publicized – pressure on Taiwan is in the diplomatic realm. Last week, two of the dwindling number of countries that still recognize Taiwan – the Solomon Islands and Kiribati – switched to establish ties with the mainland.

This means Taiwan has lost seven diplomatic partners since 2016, when Ms. Tsai became President. Taiwan now only has formal relations with 15 countries, mostly small states in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Central America.

China is effectively shrinking Taiwan’s international space, one country at a time. Further defections are planned before the election to create anti-Tsai momentum and to improve the chances of Han Kuo-yu, the presidential candidate for the mainland-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT).

Such continued erosion could be devastating for the island’s claim to being a sovereign state. Under the 1933 Montevideo Convention, a state should possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. And while Taiwan unquestionably meets the first three criteria, its capacity to enter into relations could be seriously questioned.

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies also serve an important practical purpose. They help argue Taiwan’s case for a role in United Nations agencies, such as the World Health Organization. They also provide occasion for Taiwan officials, especially the president, to travel overseas – and to use any such trip as an excuse for a stopover in the United States, to make their case directly to the world superpower.

The KMT has already been enjoying some political tailwind. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn Technology Group, lost the KMT presidential nomination to Mr. Han, but he was widely expected to enter the race as an independent instead, threatening to split the vote. But last week, he surprisingly announced he would not run. Mr. Han now looks set to lead a united, single-candidate blue camp.

The DPP, meanwhile, has been forced to deal with the challenge of a last-minute independent candidate in former vice-president Annette Lu Hsiu-lien. She has been relatively low profile for the last decade and it is unclear how strong her electoral support remains, but Ms. Lu’s pro-independence Formosa Alliance doesn’t help the DPP; China certainly doesn’t want Ms. Lu to win, but it must surely welcome her candidacy if she can draw votes away from Ms. Tsai.

Meanwhile, China will push ahead with its efforts to punish Ms. Tsai for not accepting the “one China” principle. It clearly expects the KMT candidate to be more co-operative. Mr. Han has criticized Ms. Tsai for leading Taiwan on an “increasingly narrow and dangerous path” and said that he would promote a foreign policy that focuses on trade and brings substantial improvements to the country. This is consistent with China’s position – that improved cross-strait relations will lead to greater prosperity in Taiwan.

However, even a KMT triumph at the polls won’t solve the key problem in cross-strait relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that he wants to see Taiwan reunified with mainland China while he is still in charge. A “final resolution” to the issue “cannot be passed from generation to generation,” Mr. Xi said in 2013 to Taiwanese representative Vincent Siew.

While the 66-year-old Mr. Xi is no longer bound by term limits, it still means that he is looking at a relatively short time frame.

The KMT may be willing to go back to its old position of “one China,” with Taiwan and the mainland free to have its own understanding of what that means. But regardless of Beijing’s influence campaign, no Taiwanese leader, including Mr. Han, could possibly agree to a timetable for Taiwan becoming a part of the People’s Republic of China.

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