Sunday, 12 January 2020

Taiwan election result is a challenge for China
Tsai Ing-wen made defence of sovereignty the centre of her campaign


 The crushing victory for Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential election has just provided an unwelcome New Year’s present for Xi Jinping, China’s leader. Under Mr Xi, Beijing has stepped up its efforts to end Taiwan’s de facto independence, and to incorporate the island into the mainland. At the weekend, Taiwanese voters delivered their response by re-electing President Tsai — who has enraged Beijing by putting the defence of her country’s sovereignty and democracy at the very centre of her electoral campaign. A year ago, Ms Tsai was in political trouble. But events in Hong Kong have provided the Taiwanese leader with a compelling theme. Hong Kong’s relationship with the PRC — known as “one country, two systems” — was originally held out as a model for the incorporation of Taiwan into the Chinese state, as Mr Xi has noted. However, the popular revolt in Hong Kong allowed Ms Tsai to argue that “one country, two systems” has clearly failed; and that Hong Kong — far from being a model for Taiwan — represents an awful warning. 

 The closing days of the electoral campaign featured huge peaceful rallies by both Ms Tsai and Han Kuo-yu, her pro-China opponent. The contrast between Taiwan’s peaceful democracy with the mayhem on the streets of Hong Kong and the repression in mainland China was very striking. It helped to deliver victory for Ms Tsai. The Chinese government — which is fond of calling upon foreigners to reflect upon their failings — could now take the opportunity to reflect upon its own mistakes. It is clear that Beijing’s pressure tactics have backfired in Taiwan. China has long insisted upon its right to invade Taiwan, should the island ever move towards formal independence. It has backed up these threats in recent years, with a massive military build-up — intended to make a possible invasion of Taiwan more credible. But far from cowing the Taiwanese into submission, these threats have strengthened the island’s determination to resist Beijing’s embrace. Beijing’s efforts to force Taiwan to surrender to its will are a historical legacy, dating back to the Chinese civil war, which make no real sense in the contemporary world.

But, regrettably, the current Chinese government is unlikely to change course.  That means that the government of Taiwan and the world’s democracies will have to consider how to respond. Although Ms Tsai is often described as “pro-independence”, in reality she is a status quo figure. She knows that as long as Taiwan remains a prosperous and sovereign democracy, there is no point in provoking Beijing by trying to move towards formal independence. However, the outside world should think about how to help Taiwan — by underlining to China that any attempt to resolve the situation through invasion would turn the People’s Republic into a pariah. This is more a statement of fact than a threat. China’s western trading partners would simply not be able to continue with business as usual, if Beijing attacked Taiwan.

 The world’s democracies should also try to help Taiwan to fend off Beijing’s efforts to increase the island’s isolation. At present, too much of the military and moral burden is carried by the US. But there are some encouraging developments for Taiwan, elsewhere. For example, the city of Prague recently braved Chinese pressure, by twinning itself with Taipei rather than Beijing. Taiwan deserves more moral support of this kind. At a time when the People’s Republic of China is becoming ever more authoritarian, Taiwan’s continued success matters to the cause of democracy all over the world.

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