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Han: The Curious Case of Tsai Ing-wen

At the tail-end of 2018, one would be hard-pressed to believe that Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen had any chance of even being re-elected as her party’s nominee for the presidency in 2020, much less being re-elected as president. Her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally supported moves towards a more independent Taiwan, was soundly defeated in the midterm elections, winning only six of the island nation’s total twenty-two local district races, which encompass races for mayorships and city councillors. This was particularly surprising after the DPP’s landslide victory in 2016 that swept Tsai into power. The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, which has traditionally supported closer relations with China, flipped nine DPP-held districts, including the DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung. For all intents and purposes, the DPP’s immediate political future in Taiwan seemed in deep peril. Tsai was in even greater danger, resigning as party chairwoman as her reelection prospects and even immediate political efficacy seemed greatly diminished.

And then Chinese president Xi Jinping gave a January speech where he stressed the importance of unification talks between the two countries which have been nominally separated since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, where the Nationalists (predecessors of the modern KMT) fled to Taiwan after defeat by the ascendant Communists. Xi framed the negotiations as under the “one country, two systems” policy currently employed in Hong Kong and Macau. Furthermore, Xi warned that any declaration of Taiwanese independence would lead to swift military attack from the mainland. These warnings, though provocative, are not new positions taken by the mainland. Mainland China has always considered Taiwan a rogue province that will eventually be returned to full Chinese control, whether by force or negotiation. However, this was Xi’s first direct address concerning Taiwan and with Chinese regional hegemony growing, his words added a new level of threat to the decades-long conflict.

This recent revival of conflict has propelled the cross-strait relationship back into the spotlight. Taiwan’s relations with mainland China have historically oscillated between amicable and hostile since the island’s democratization in the 1990s with the political dominance of the mainland-friendly KMT, which control the Pan-Blue Coalition in the Legislative Yuan (the Taiwanese equivalent of Parliament), and the independence-oriented DPP, which established itself in 1986 in the midst of one-party dictatorial rule by the KMT and heads the Pan-Green Coalition in the Legislative Yuan. Since Tsai’s historic 2016 election that granted the DPP one of the largest legislative majorities in Taiwan’s history and thus made Tsai one of Taiwan’s most powerful presidents, Taiwanese relations with China have soured over the DPP’s traditional pro-independence mindset. China has responded to the DPP’s pro-independence sentiments by ceasing communications with Tsai and restricting trade between the two nations. Furthermore, China has been more aggressive in reducing the number of nations that still recognize Taiwan as a country. At the start of Tsai’s term in 2016, 22 countries recognized Taiwan but with China pressuring these nations more and more to peel off as the years go by, only 17 countries still recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation as of 2019. And Taiwanese-Chinese relations hit another new low after Tsai’s administration accused Chinese officials of intervening in their midterm elections through financial support of pro-China KMT candidates and social media disinformation campaigns similar in style to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election cycle. This accusation has prompted investigations by the Taiwanese Ministry of Justice and even a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, who called for an investigation into the matter. Through this historical context, Xi’s speech stood as an even more aggressive declaration of perceived Chinese control over the island nation.

Tsai swiftly responded to Xi, rejecting the “one country, two systems” policy and calling Xi’s comments “impossible…to accept.” Tsai, the first female president and second DPP president in Taiwanese history, instantly surged in the polls. Her approval ratings leapt ten points to a six-month high of 34.5% according to the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. For context on the general volatility of Taiwanese politicians’ popularity, Tsai’s KMT predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, won his second term with 51.6% approval in 2012 before having his approval drop to 15% two months later. Nonetheless, Tsai’s unequivocal rejection of the policy was unusual for the politician, who has maintained a rather ambiguous stance on the policy in attempts to avoid unnecessary conflict with the mainland. Even pro-opposition media complimented Tsai’s response to the provocation. While a diversity of opinion exists in Taiwan concerning cross-strait relations—ranging from stridently pro-independence to strongly pro-Chinese relations—no party, not even the opposition KMT, truly agrees with a Chinese vision of a completely integrated Taiwan a la Hong Kong or Macau. Thus, Tsai’s defense of the island’s sovereignty found broad support across the Taiwanese political spectrum, causing some to deign her as a mother figure defending her child from a bully. While her political future had looked bleak, her sudden resurgence in popularity has increased the chances of her winning her party’s nomination once more in 2020, though Tsai has not stated whether she will run for another term after stepping down as her party’s official leader.

The sudden resurgence of discussion concerning cross-strait relations will certainly make the subject of China and Taiwan’s national security a hot-button issue in the upcoming election cycle. However, Tsai has much more work to do beyond China in order to regain enough popularity for reelection as she still faces internal challenges. The opposition KMT’s message, especially concerning the KMT’s advocacy of greater economic ties to China and greater government centralization, has suddenly resonated with previously DPP-supporting rural areas. In contrast, Tsai and the DPP’s policies of economic liberalism, which include unpopular labor reform that has scaled back public holidays and cut pensions, have failed to drastically increase the nation’s middling GDP and alienated many voters who feel that she and her party have reneged on promises to raise wages and improve working conditions. Furthermore, the KMT has successfully used the 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage—making Taiwan the first Asian country to do so—to turn out social conservatives in the 2018 midterms against the more socially progressive DPP, which has strongly pushed for greater gender equality, human rights, and generally pro-Western policies. Tsai still faces attacks from members in her own Pan-Green Coalition who have called for her not to run again in 2020, with senior party activists even sending her an open letter asking her to step aside. The coalition, which contains factions ranging from strident independence advocates to moderates who care more about the economy than all else, has struggled to maintain unity under Tsai and after the shellacking the party took in the midterms, fear another Tsai candidacy will lead to certain defeat.

The U.S. has always had a special role in cross-strait relations, having recognized Taiwan as the true representation of China until 1979. Through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. provides Taiwan materials to “maintain…sufficient self-defense capabilities” and more recently, both the Obama and Trump Administrations have sent supplies to help bolster Taiwan’s military much to China’s chagrin. The mainland has responded with greater aggression, amping up their verbal threats and enacting military drills that simulate possible invasions of the island. There is growing sentiment in the U.S. government to protect Taiwan from China’s increasingly aggressive position as the island nation stands both as one the healthiest democracies in Asia—ranked third in 2018 by The Economist’s Regional Democracy Index— and a potential bulwark against Chinese influential expansion. A 2019 Pentagon report has even detailed fears over a possible attack on Taiwan by China. This growing support for Taiwan has continued festering with a group of Republican U.S. Senators sending a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking that President Tsai address a joint-session of Congress, an act that would surely infuriate Beijing and threaten the current nature of Sino-American relations.

As Tsai’s first term heads toward a close, she finds herself in two wildly contrasting positions. Tsai’s suddenly gained a position of domestic and regional strength. If her defense of Taiwan against China continues stirring up popularity, she may yet salvage her presidency and push for another term in 2020. Furthermore, she has found increasing support in China’s greatest rival—the U.S. However, the safety of her nation of 23 million hangs in the balance as Tsai walks a fine line between competing world powers. China has shown no qualms against using military action to maintain control over the island nation and if allegations of electoral interference are shown to be true, Taiwan’s sovereignty may be in even greater danger if Tsai tacks towards the U.S. too much in an attempt to stand as a bulwark against China. Nonetheless, Tsai, characterized as both an ineffective leader and a maternal defender, is one to watch as cross-strait relations become increasingly important on the world stage.