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China up close

Xi finds little to celebrate in Taiwan elections

Rise of pro-independence radicals muddies the waters

TOKYO -- In a new twist in cross-strait relations, the anti-Beijing, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has suffered a crushing defeat in Taiwan's local elections, widely seen as a prelude to the self-ruled island's presidential election in 2020.

The dismal results immediately forced Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to resign as party chief. Since the 62-year-old scholar-turned-politician won a resounding victory in the 2016 Taiwan presidential election, China has severed contacts with her government. Beijing regards it as a pro-independence administration plotting a breakup of the Chinese nation.

The defeat of such a nemesis, and sizable gains by the pro-Beijing opposition Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or KMT, should give Chinese President Xi Jinping ample cause for celebration.

But that does not seem to be the case.

"President Xi cannot be wild with joy," an expert on cross-straits relations said. "On the contrary, forming Taiwan policy has become very tricky for Beijing."

Supporters of the pro-Beijing KMT wave flags during a campaign rally in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Nov. 23.   © Kyodo

What does he mean?

What China now fears most is a deterioration of cross-strait relations and a possible rebound of the DPP -- led by pro-independence hardliners -- in the next Taiwanese presidential election in 14 months' time.

At a time when he has his hands full with U.S. President Donald Trump, Xi does not have the luxury of waging a war on two fronts if Taiwan emerges as a serious issue.

Beijing still regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary. It has pressured Tsai to acknowledge the so-called "1992 Consensus," an agreement between semiofficial representatives in 1992, which stated that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to "One China."

What that "China" means was purposely left ambiguous. But Tsai has not acknowledged even this formula, frustrating Beijing.

China still remembers vividly the shock created by Trump in December 2016, shortly before his inauguration, when he telephoned Tsai. While their discussion lasted a mere 12 minutes, it was a direct conversation between the U.S. President-elect and the leader of Taiwan, unprecedented since the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

On the security front, Beijing is finding the Trump administration much tougher to handle than the former administration of Democratic President Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy sent two ships through the Taiwan Strait in the third such operation this year.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announces her resignation as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after local elections in Taipei, Taiwan on Nov. 24.   © Reuters

Feeling the pressure from Washington, China had begun to explore slight changes to its stance toward the Tsai administration. The best proof of that can be found in the public remarks made by leaders at Taiwan-related research institutions across China.

Li Peng, a top official at Xiamen University's Taiwan Research Institute in Fujian province, just across the strait from Taiwan, is one such figure. "China should consider reaching out to the relatively practical and moderate members of the DPP," Li said recently. "A certain level of cooperation with nongovernmental think tanks close to the DPP can also be an option," he said.

Just two years ago, shortly after Tsai was elected, Li was repeating hardline remarks on Taiwan to overseas media outlets. The contrast could not be clearer.

The practical and moderate members of the DPP, who Li was referring to, are actually Tsai and her allies.

Tsai has been careful in conducting diplomacy towards China. While not acknowledging the 1992 consensus, she has avoided categorically denying it. For example, in her inaugural address in May 2016, she referred to "various joint acknowledgments and understandings" reached at the 1992 meeting.

On the domestic political front, Tsai has pushed ahead with necessary but unpopular policies, including reforming a pension system which had favored public servants.

The president's practical approach backfired in the Nov. 24 local elections, when she came under strong criticism from voters.

Local newspapers reporting the DPP's defeat one day after the elections.

With her resignation as party head, Tsai has lost her ability to act as a unifying force. Among the factions now rising within the DPP are some groups of pro-independence and radical members.

Taiwanese Premier Lai Ching-te, also known by his English name William Lai, is one of those radicals. Although the 59-year-old offered to resign as premier to take responsibility for the electoral defeat, he remains in his post at Tsai's request.

The outspoken Lai has publicly declared he is pro-independence, even describing himself as a "political worker for Taiwanese independence." He also said that Taiwan "is already a sovereign, independent country and therefore does not need to declare independence."

With Tsai unlikely to lead the DPP in the presidential race, Lai is tipped to be one of the likely candidates.

The local elections on November 24 dramatically changed Taiwan's political map with 15 of the 22 counties and cities turning blue, the KMT's color. The KMT's victory in the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's third most populous city and a traditional DPP stronghold, was a key part of the opposition party's big gains.

In Kaohsiung the KMT's victorious candidate, the eloquent 61-year-old Han Kuo-yu, has now emerged as a rising star in the pro-China party.

Han, a former top official of Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corp., even turned his unprepossessing appearance into an advantage, calling himself "a baldheaded vegetable vendor".

Han was initially seen as a fringe candidate. But his tactic of distancing himself from the KMT elders also paid off unexpectedly, sparking a "Han wave." 

Yet, his administrative flair and capabilities are untested, and it looks difficult for him to move to the national political arena and run for president so soon after becoming Kaohsiung mayor.

Opposition Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu won in the Democratic Progressive Party's stronghold of Kaohsiung. He plans to create a team dedicated to cross-strait exchanges.   © Getty Images

What of KMT chairman Wu Den-yih?

Wu was a significant contributor to the opposition party's resounding victory in the elections. But the 70-year-old needs to shed his image as an old-fashioned politician. 

The KMT also has the option of having either former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, 68, or former presidential candidate Eric Chu, 57, run again. The latter lost heavily to Tsai in 2016.

There have also been rumors that if the KMT fails to regain strength as easily as it expects, it might tap independent Ko Wen-je, 59, as its candidate in the 2020 presidential election. Ko, a former surgeon, was reelected Taipei mayor this time. 

Ko has described mainland China and Taiwan as parts of "one family" in the past. China seems to be eyeing Ko as a last-resort KMT presidential candidate if no other strong pro-Beijing candidates emerge.

But Ko was closely challenged in this Taipei mayoral race by the KMT candidate Ting Shou-chung, who rode the "Han wave." There are indications that Ko asked DPP forces for help in the final phase of the neck-and-neck race.

This complicated his relations with the KMT and Ting subsequently sought a vote recount, not accepting his initial defeat by a wafer-thin margin.

The KMT's big victory on Nov. 24 was more a loss by Tsai than a win by the pro-Beijing forces. That is why anything could happen in the upcoming presidential election.

Xi has no choice but to ascertain, for now, whether the KMT's recovery is for real. While encouraging exchanges between mainland China and Taiwan at the local level, Beijing will take a wait-and-see attitude first.

Only then can Xi decide whether to go back to the plan of sending an olive branch to the moderates within the DPP.

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