Tuesday, April 23, 2024

What Taiwanese voter defiance means for China -Dlight News

Before Taiwan’s voters went to the polls on Saturday, the Chinese Communist party made sure they knew its preferred outcome, calling on them to make the “right choice” between peace and war and denouncing the Democratic Progressive party’s Lai Ching-te as a dangerous separatist.

But now that Lai has won the presidency, Beijing has toned down its rhetoric. Commenting on Lai’s victory with 40 per cent of the vote and the DPP’s loss of its legislative majority, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the result showed that “the DPP can by no means represent mainstream public opinion on the island”.

In the complex world of cross-Strait relations, Beijing’s response could be interpreted as good news.

Many analysts see the reaction as evidence that despite the DPP’s unprecedented win of a third term in office, Beijing might feel reassured by the sharp drop in voter support for the party it refuses to engage with because the DPP sees Taiwan as an independent country separate from China. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack it if Taipei resists unification indefinitely.

“The [TAO] statement justifies the line of [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping towards Taiwan by arguing it was successful in pushing the DPP from its huge majority into the role of a minority government,” said Lai I-chung, president of the government-backed think-tank Prospect Foundation in Taipei.

Carla Freeman, a senior expert for the China programme at the United States Institute of Peace, said: “For the mainland, if the DPP had to win, these circumstances are not a terrible picture. [Beijing] may actually feel positive about the lower margin of Lai’s election, and they are probably also pleased that there is a divided government and such a strong showing in parliament for the [opposition] Kuomintang.” The Chinese government maintains exchanges with the KMT because that party says Taiwan belongs to a greater Chinese nation although it disagrees with Beijing over which state has the right to rule that nation.

Beijing’s response to the DPP victory, Freeman said, could translate into a more calibrated approach to Taiwan and make Chinese military action towards Taiwan less likely.

Despite China’s muted reaction to the election result and expectations by Taiwan’s government and experts that a Chinese attack is unlikely in the coming years, experts believe Beijing will be unrelenting in its pressure on the country.

The public framing of Lai’s government as a minority not representative of Taiwan’s public makes the chances of any dialogue with the DPP government even lower than under incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen, analysts said. “They didn’t even wait for the inauguration speech to see if it might be acceptable to them,” said the Prospect Foundation’s Lai.

Instead, exchanges are expected to pick up between Chinese officials and members of Taiwan’s new parliament. The DPP’s seats in the 113-strong legislature dropped from 61 to 51 while the KMT increased its number of lawmakers from 38 to 52.

The parliamentary balance is held by two independents leaning towards the KMT and eight seats for the Taiwan People’s party, an upstart force which ran on an opposition agenda but is prepared to co-operate with either of the big parties on specific issues.

One decisive moment will be the election of the legislative speaker in early February.

The KMT wants Han Kuo-yu, a populist China-friendly politician who lost the last presidential election to Tsai, to become speaker.

Although the post is not particularly powerful, it could play an outsized role in cross-Strait relations because the speaker is also chair of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a state-backed non-profit through which Taipei conducts exchanges with western democracies that do not have diplomatic relations with it, including on issues those countries deem too sensitive or political to discuss on a government level.

DPP politicians said a transfer of control over TFD to the opposition could entail a radical shift in its activities from outreach to other democracies to dialogue with China.

Under Ma Ying-jeou, the last KMT president, a significant part of the TFD budget was used to fund local governments officials’ visits to China or hosting Chinese officials, they said.

Stepping up contacts with a larger number of Taiwanese lawmakers fits into Beijing’s strategy of what Xi has branded “integrated development”.

Beijing’s TAO said on Saturday China would continue to work with “the relevant political parties, groups and people from all walks of life in Taiwan to promote cross-Strait exchanges, deepen integrated development, jointly promote Chinese culture, promote peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and push forward the great cause of unification of the motherland”.

Parliament will also play a large role in other policy areas that are key to enhancing Taiwan’s security in the face of Xi’s more assertive stance.

Although both the KMT and the TPP have expressed support for further increases in defence spending, KMT politicians disagree with the DPP over the details of military strategy and which arms to procure from the US.

“Lai won’t be able to do a lot of new stuff unless he has support from one of the other of the two opposition parties,” said Nathan Batto, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institution.

“The big question everybody is talking about is arms procurement. If the opposition dig in their heels and veto arms purchases, they will have to make their case publicly though because the average voter does not understand the nuances of weapons and military strategy.”

During the last DPP minority government 20 years ago, the KMT blocked budgets for weapons purchases across the board. However it is unlikely to do that this time around, analysts say, because China’s military power has increased drastically since then and the Taiwanese public perceives a more acute threat.

Despite the constraints on Lai, many Chinese observers do not harbour illusions that this marks a long-term drop in support for the DPP.

Wang Yiwei, an international relations scholar at Renmin University in Beijing, said the DPP victory was no surprise for China as the party has gradually become more deeply embedded in Taiwanese politics. He dubbed this as the “LDPisation” of the DPP — a reference to Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has, with the exception of six years, held power since 1955.

Beijing did not expect Lai to cross its red lines such as changing Taiwan’s constitution or official name, though he might occasionally tread near those lines, Wang said.

As long as Lai did not take steps towards formal independence, “the Taiwan status quo will be kept until there is a power shift between China and the US”, he said.

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