The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Taiwan’s New President and the Outlook for Regional Relations

July 11, 2016

The Taiwanese people handed Tsai Ing-wen a decisive victory in the January 2016 presidential election in a repudiation of the Kuomintang and the strongly pro-China policies of President Ma Ying-jeou. What does her historic win signify for the future of cross-strait and Japan-Taiwan relations?

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Taiwan’s first woman president will take office on May 20, 2016. In the nation’s January 16 election, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party trounced her Kuomintang opponent Eric Chu (Chu Li-luan) by a 3 million-vote margin. At the same time, the DPP took control of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, relegating the Kuomintang to the status of minority party for the first time ever. The outcome ensures that Tsai, unlike previous DPP President Chen Shui-bian (2000-8), will have an opportunity to govern effectively, free from partisan obstruction. But what does this historic outcome signify for the future of cross-strait and Japan-Taiwan relations?

Behind the DPP’s Victory

Broadly speaking, the DPP’s triumph can be attributed to two basic factors.

The first was a carefully planned and well-executed election strategy. The DPP designated Tsai, the party chair, as its presidential nominee back in April 2015. Factional quarrels have been a recurring problem in the DPP, formed in 1986 from motley group of anti-Kuomintang activists. But this time party unity prevailed in the nomination process and the election campaign.

On relations with China, the single biggest election issue, Tsai took a carefully balanced, strategically ambiguous position. In her nomination acceptance speech, she stressed maintenance of the status quo as the basic principle for management of cross-strait relations. This represented a significant departure from the position she staked out in her unsuccessful 2012 bid for the presidency, when she was challenging pro-China KMT incumbent Ma Ying-jeou. On that occasion, Tsai explicitly rejected the “1992 consensus” and its premise of unification, and the opposition accused her of being an independence extremist. [1] In fact, her statements were well within the bounds of the DPP’s traditional stance, namely, that Taiwan is already an independent state (and therefore has no need to declare independence). But her failure to endorse Beijing’s longstanding position that Taiwan and the mainland are part of “one China” was enough to elicit dire warnings from the Chinese government.

In 2012, Tsai’s stance on cross-strait relations and Beijing’s suspicions of the DPP fueled US misgivings about the impact of a Tsai presidency on regional stability, doubts that she was ultimately unable to dispel. Some degree of backing from Washington is a must for a Taiwanese presidential candidate, given the importance of US support to Taiwan’s security and its status in the international community. This time around, Tsai worked hard to win an implicit endorsement from US officials. On the occasion of a much-anticipated visit to Washington in June 2015, she pledged to “treasure and secure the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges” as the basis of efforts to “further the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations.” [2] During the visit, she became the first Taiwanese presidential candidate ever invited inside the US Department of State, an important token of the administration’s confidence.

Even more important, however, was the fact that her position on cross-strait relations was in synch with the sentiments of Taiwanese voters. In a poll conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in June 2015, almost 60% of respondents indicated that they favored maintaining the status quo in cross-strait relations, whether permanently or “for the time being.” [3] Amid this climate, the DPP seems to have made a strategic decision to reach out to voters in the middle of the political spectrum, confident of continued support from younger Taiwanese, who tend to be more unequivocally pro-independence. The decision appears to have paid off. The more radically anti-China, pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union lost all three of its seats in the national legislature in the January election. Taken together, these developments indicate an increasingly hostile climate of opinion toward hardline supporters of de jure independence.

The Kuomintang Self-Destructs

The second major factor behind the DPP’s big win in January was the steep decline in support for the KMT as a result of the party’s own missteps.

The failed leadership and policies of incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou are doubtless the biggest reason for the KMT’s disarray. I attended a campaign rally for KMT candidate Eric Chu in Taipei on January 9, 2016. The crowd was enthusiastic until President Ma appeared on stage; the energy level dropped perceptibly as soon as he began speaking. Even the party faithful had turned on President Ma.

When Ma Ying-jeou came to office in May 2008, he quickly drew up a series of bold policies aimed at stepping up trade, investment, and interchange between Taiwan and mainland China. There is no question that these policies helped mollify Beijing and stabilize cross-strait relations. But Ma also assured the nation that liberalization and expansion of trade and investment with China would pay off economically, allowing Taiwan to reach the ambitious economic targets he had laid out in his “633” election campaign: annual growth averaging 6% or higher, unemployment averaging 3% or lower, and per capita GDP of $30,000 by 2016. The result instead has been an accelerating exodus of manufacturing jobs, growing income inequality, and a spike in unemployment among the young. (Although overall unemployment averaged 3.8% in 2014, the rate among those aged 20-24 jumped to 12.6%.)

Meanwhile, new policies that opened the floodgates to Chinese tourists had the perverse effect of making the Taiwanese more aware of cultural differences between themselves and the mainland Chinese and reinforcing a growing sense of Taiwanese identity. Mounting opposition to Ma’s pro-China policies came to a head in March and April 2014, when several hundred members of the so-called Sunflower Student Movement stormed the Legislative Yuan to block the impending ratification of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement.

Ma has also come under harsh criticism for his highhanded and erratic party leadership, particularly in connection with the disastrous expulsion of Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pyng from the KMT. In September 2013, the prosecutor-general of the Supreme Prosecutors Office accused Wang, a longtime rival of Ma’s, of interfering in a court decision. Ma responded swiftly by calling an emergency meeting of the relevant KMT committee and having Wang’s party membership revoked. The next day Wang filed suit with the Taipei District Court and secured an injunction against the expulsion. The KMT leadership appealed the court’s ruling and lost. As of this writing, Wang retains his party membership. He also held onto his position as president of the Legislative Yuan until the end of last January, when his term expired.

But the coup de grâce for the KMT was its own aberrant behavior in the selection of a presidential nominee. In July 2015, the party duly nominated Hung Hsiu-chu, deputy speaker of the Legislative Yuan, in accordance with its own selection protocol. But as concerns mounted over Hung’s electability (given her strong pro-unification stance) the KMT held an extraordinary party convention in October 2015 and replaced her with party Chairman Eric Chu. It was a desperation move on the part of the KMT, which gambled that a young and charismatic leader—representing a new generation of politicians—could pull the party out of its tailspin. But by this time the people’s confidence in the KMT was shattered.

Outlook for Cross-Strait Relations

Although recent statements on both sides have downplayed the potential for a major change in cross-strait relations, Tsai’s election has introduced a new and uncertain dynamic into the delicate dance between Beijing and Taipei.

During the election campaign, Tsai maintained a deliberately cautious and ambiguous stance regarding cross-strait relations. While refusing to explicitly endorse the “1992 consensus,” she repeatedly promised to work for the development of peaceful relations “on the basis of the existing foundation” and studiously avoided the kind of language that tends to provoke a backlash from Beijing. She maintained this cautious stance in the January 17 press conference following her election. [4]

The official Chinese response to Tsai’s election has been muted by Beijing’s standards. As soon as the results were out, the Taiwan Work Office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee issued a statement stressing that the mainland’s basic principles and policies concerning Taiwan “are consistent and clear, and will not change with the results of Taiwan elections.” In a reaffirmation of the government’s longstanding position, it stated, “We will continue to adhere to the 1992 Consensus and resolutely oppose any form of secessionist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence,’” adding that Beijing was willing to enhance communication and exchanges with all political parties and groups that recognize the principle that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan belong to one China. [5]

As president, Tsai will have to perform a difficult balancing act. She must affirm the status quo in cross-strait relations without denying the fact of Taiwan’s emerging national identity. She must also promote the kind of economic development that will translate into a better quality of life for the people of Taiwan. As the ruling party, the DPP, notwithstanding its pro-independence roots, will have to forge policies rooted today’s realities—such as the fact that Taiwan depends on China (including Hong Kong) for 30% of its trade and that more than 1 million Taiwanese are currently residing in mainland China.

At the same time, the people will expect Tsai to stay true to her message of “respect for the Taiwanese people.” According to the aforementioned opinion poll of the Election Study Center, a full 59% of voters now think of themselves as Taiwanese, while only 3% think of themselves as Chinese (34% think of themselves as both). To affirm the trend toward Taiwanese identity while maintaining the status quo in cross-strait relations will mean preserving just the right distance between Taiwan and China. This is easier said than done, and a certain amount of trial-and-error will doubtless continue for the time being.

How, then, does China—or, more specifically, President Xi Jinping—envision the development of relations with Taiwan over the next few years?

The state-controlled media had this to say in a commentary released soon after Tsai’s election: “The mainland is always in the driver’s seat when it comes to cross-strait relations. . . . From a fundamental viewpoint, the key to Taiwan’s prospects and the future of cross-strait relations lies with the development and progress of the mainland. Development is our unshakable purpose. As long as the mainland has its own issues in hand, it can face any new developments on the Taiwanese side with composure.” [6]

The underlying intent is difficult to discern. One possible interpretation is, “As long as China’s economic development continues, we can deal with the Taiwan problem in our own way and eventually achieve unification.” If this is Beijing’s thinking, there could be trouble ahead for cross-strait relations. Such a viewpoint betrays a failure to understand the change in attitudes underway in Taiwanese society—most notably, the fast-rising percentage of residents who identify as citizens of an independent Taiwanese state and regard mainland China as a foreign country.

Of course, everything will depend on how well the new president governs, but given the current disarray of the Kuomintang, Tsai Ing-wen has a good chance of being reelected four years down the road. Will this prospect tax the patience of President Xi Jinping, given his manifest ambitions for superpower China? Beijing was wise to choose the path of “peaceful development” in defining its relationship with Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou. It must have realized that the prospects for unification on its own terms are exceedingly remote, given the likelihood of US intervention and the strong desire for stability among the other countries of East Asia. Will President Xi allow his sense of destiny and the Chinese dream of unification to cloud his judgment where Taiwan is concerned?

From a rational, objective viewpoint, it seems clear that Tsai Ing-wen’s Taiwan and Xi Jinping’s China will need to reach a mutual accommodation, and in all likelihood such efforts are already underway behind the scenes. The most urgent priority is to find a way to sidestep the issue of the “1992 consensus” in such a way that both sides can save face while maintaining the status quo in cross-strait relations.

Managing the Japan-Taiwan-China Triangle

Japan is another country that figures prominently in Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign policy. When she visited Japan as the DPP nominee in October 2015, Tsai traveled to Yamaguchi Prefecture, the constituency of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where Abe arranged for his younger brother, House of Representatives member Nobuo Kishi, to show her around. Such warm hospitality should be seen as a token of the Abe cabinet’s fundamentally friendly stance toward Taiwan.

The statement issued by Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida in response to the election results also sounded a warm and welcoming note. “Taiwan is an important partner and a precious friend of Japan,” he said. “We share basic values and enjoy close economic relationship and people to people exchange. The Government of Japan will work toward further deepening cooperation and exchanges between Japan and Taiwan, based on the existing position to maintain Japan-Taiwan relations as working relationship on a non-governmental basis.” [7] This was high praise indeed considering Japan has no diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and it signaled the government’s hope of further strengthening the bilateral relationship.

The Japanese government has good reason to think that Tsai will respond positively to these overtures. One encouraging signal was her meeting on January 17—the day after the election—with Mitsuo Ohashi, head of the Interchange Association and Japan’s de facto representative to Taiwan. Another was the president-elect’s effort to downplay the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands during her post-election press conference.

Asked to comment on the territorial dispute, Tsai stated that the islands belong to Taiwan but stressed that she did not wish to damage relations with Japan by entering into an active dispute. [8] Views about the Senkakus in Taiwan run the gamut, including the position (articulated recently by former President Lee Teng-hui) that they belong to Japan. Historically, the DPP, while referring to the islands as Taiwanese territory, has avoided making too much of the issue. Given this tendency and the president-elect’s recent statement, it seems unlikely that Tsai will allow the dispute to undermine relations between Japan and Taiwan.

Yet even with both sides ready and willing to do their part, strengthening ties between Japan and Taiwan is a tricky business. It depends first and foremost on the tacit assent of Beijing—which in turn depends on smooth cross-strait relations. Developments since 2000 testify to this inconvenient truth. During the presidency of Chen Shui-bian, whom the Chinese government branded a “troublemaker,” Beijing was hypersensitive to any real or perceived bid by Japan and Taiwan to strengthen ties. Under Ma Ying-jeou, who presided over a dramatic improvement in cross-strait relations, Japan and Taiwan concluded a landmark fishing agreement, despite Ma’s supposedly anti-Japanese bias.

The majority of Taiwanese have abandoned the notion that Taiwan is an integral part of a single Chinese nation and that Taipei is that nation’s legitimate government. Furthermore, Taiwan has proven itself a vital and functioning democracy in successive elections, ousting the incumbent party three times since 2000 without succumbing to social or political turmoil. Firm friendship with such a neighbor is the desire of the Japanese people. But Japan-Taiwan ties must be predicated on good cross-strait relations.

The stability of the Taiwan Strait is vital to Japan’s own interests. In our regional diplomacy, accordingly, we must focus on being the best possible neighbor to both China and Taiwan by helping them avoid mutual antagonism, deepen mutual understanding, and continue the task of building stable and peaceful cross-strait relations.

[1] The term “1992 consensus” refers to the outcome of a meeting between the semi-official representatives of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1992. By the account of both the PRC and the Kuomintang, both sides verbally affirmed the principle that there is only one China. However, they did not reach a consensus on the meaning of “one China.” Beijing announced that the two sides “verbally affirmed the ‘one China principle’” (and the ‘one China principle’ is by Beijing’s definition the principle that the government of the PRC is the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China, which includes Taiwan). The Kuomintang insists that the two sides “agreed to disagree” on the definition of “one China.”

[2] “Dr. Tsai Ing-wen Speaks at Center for Strategic and International Studies,” Democratic Progressive Party International Site, June 3, 2015, .

[3] Election Study Center, National Chengchi University, Taiwan Independence vs. Unification with the Mainland Trend Distribution in Taiwan (1992/06 to 2015/06), .

[4] “Full Text of Tsai’s Victory Speech at International Press Conference,” Focus Taiwan, January 16, 2016, .

[5] “Tsai Ing-wen Wins Taiwan Leadership Election,” Xinhuanet, January 16, 2016, .

[6] Xinhuanet, January 16, 2016, .

[7] “The Result of the Presidential Election in Taiwan,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, January 16, 2016, .

[8] Text of Tsai’s international press conference on January 16, Democratic Progressive Party website, January 17, 2016,新聞&one_page=10&page=7&start_p=1&act=&sn=8774&stat=&order_type=desc&order_col=add_

    • Professor, School of International Relations, University of Shizuoka
    • Kazuyuki Suwa
    • Kazuyuki Suwa

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