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Taiwan elections

Tsai landslide risks China cranking up pressure on Taiwan

Beijing is seen likely to take further diplomatic, economic or military steps

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. "The two sides have almost no political trust," according to Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan. (Reuters/Akira Kodaka)

TAIPEI -- Tsai Ing-wen's sweeping victory in Taiwan's presidential election vindicated her strong stance against China, but also risks provoking Beijing into stepping up its campaign of pressure against an island it views as a wayward province.

Tsai, who portrays herself as the best defender of democracy in Taiwan, received the highest number of votes for any candidate since the island's first direct presidential election in 1996. In her campaign, she played up Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong protesters and the perceived threat to Taiwan's hard-fought democracy.

"I hope the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically-elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation," Tsai told an international news conference after her reelection on Saturday. "Positive cross-strait interactions founded in mutual respect are the best way to serve our people. The results of this election have made that answer crystal clear."

Analysts said the election result sends a strong message to Beijing that the majority of Taiwanese no longer buy the "1992 consensus" -- an ambiguous understanding held by both Beijing and the opposition Kuomintang. The term refers to an idea that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of "one China," but leaves room for each party to interpret its meaning.

Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan, told the Nikkei Asian review that China is now likely to crank up the pressure toward the island on diplomatic, economic and military fronts.

"The possibility of escalating tensions in cross-strait relations will rise follow Tsai's reelection, as the two sides have almost no political trust and a lack of communication channels," Pan said.

"We can foresee that China will strengthen efforts to poach Taiwan's remaining diplomatic allies and prevent the island from participating in international organizations and events," the professor said. "Beijing will also offer more incentives to hollow out Taiwanese industry and talent."

Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing wen waves to supporters after winning a second term on Saturday. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

China responded quickly and firmly to Tsai's election win.

"We hope and believe the international community will continue adhering to the One China principle, understand and support the just cause of Chinese people to oppose the secessionist activities for 'Taiwan independence' and realize national reunification," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the mainland's State Council, said: "We uphold the basic principles of peaceful reunification and 'one country, two systems' and the One China principle."

Early last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated that Beijing would not rule out using force to expedite unification between Taiwan and the mainland.

But some political observers said Tsai, whose ruling Democratic Progressive Party supports independence, has stepped carefully to avoid providing China with an excuse for using military assets to take control of Taiwan.

"The DPP actually knows the red line of Beijing on not crossing the sovereignty issue," said Vincent Tsui, Asia analyst at Gavekal Research. Tsai's stance on China "has been quite passive and reactive," he said.

Supporters of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen celebrate in Taipei after her landslide victory in Saturday's election. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

After her win, Tsai extended an olive branch to Beijing by again showing a willingness to start dialogue.

"I want to emphasize that my commitment to peaceful, stable cross-strait relations remains unchanged," Tsai said, adding that "peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue are key to positive cross-strait interactions and long-term stable development."

Syaru Shirley Lin, a political economist at the University of Virginia and Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Nikkei that Tsai's landslide shows China needs a strategic rethink of its Taiwan policy.

"All eyes are on how Beijing would react," Lin said, adding that Taiwan and the rest of the world are "hoping for the best to see Beijing as a responsible stakeholder."

However, the gap between Beijing and Taipei is "greater than ever," she said. Tsai has less room to compromise on the sovereignty issue after gaining an overwhelming mandate at the polls, Lin said, while Xi is aspiring to be more assertive and considering the use of a harder stick to deal with issues regarded as fundamental for him.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets China's President Xi Jinping at the start of a bilateral meeting in Japan last June. A further improvement in Taiwan-U.S. relations may depend on Trump continuing to support the island after a planned signing of an initial trade deal with China.   © Reuters

Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, told Nikkei that Taiwan's relations with the U.S. could also continue to improve. This, he said, depended on U.S. President Donald Trump continuing to support Taiwan after a planned signing of an initial trade deal with China this week.

The scholar said the U.S. could move to begin negotiations on some kind of free trade agreement with Taiwan, or even invite Tsai to Washington.

Indeed, the morning after her election win, Tsai met with Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington's de facto embassy on the island. She also sat down with Mitsuo Ohashi, chairman of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, the Japanese equivalent of AIT.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Tsai in a statement. "Under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people," America's top diplomat said.

Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, meets with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in the Presidential Office in Taipei on Sunday. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

The U.S.-China trade war has driven the Tsai administration to reduce Taiwan's economic reliance on the Chinese market, with Washington's punitive tariffs on Chinese goods pushing Taiwanese companies to shift investments back home from the mainland. Indeed, Taiwan's export-driven economy outpaced Asian peers such as Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong last year.

"More export diversification from a very high dependence on China, supportive government policies and the cyclical turn in the tech cycle are the drivers," Alicia Garcia Herrero and Gary Ng, Hong Kong-based economists at Natixis, wrote in a recent report.

The analysts said while China is still Taiwan's largest export market, exports to the U.S. grew 18% in the first 11 months in 2019 while those to China fell by 5%.

Joy Hu, activity coordinator at Taiwan Digital Diplomacy Association, a group of young people who seek to enhance understanding between people in different countries, believes the economic factor "is tightly linked" with Taiwan's future political course.

"If we rely in China market too much, 20 or 30 years later we will be taken over by them," the 22-year-old told Nikkei. "We need to separate the risk."

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