Taiwanese voters give peace a chance

One of the skills of good journalism is the ability to state the obvious – particularly the things that are obvious once stated, but often ignored. For a good example, see the BBC’s Cindy Sui earlier this week.

The subject is Taiwan, where local elections last Sunday delivered a big victory to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, and a major setback for president Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The DPP is broadly centrist and the KMT more centre-right, but the main difference between them is that the DPP is pro-independence while the KMT stands for closer relations with China.

Prior to Tsai’s election almost three years ago, the KMT had been in government for eight years. Under its leadership, Taiwan pursued a conciliatory approach to the mainland, and it worked wonders. Cross-strait travel and investment blossomed, and Taiwan won increased participation in international forums – at the price of not explicitly challenging Beijing’s view that Taiwan is just a renegade province.

The DPP saw that as weakness, and accused the KMT of selling out Taiwan. But although Tsai won a landslide victory in 2016, voters seem to have quickly tired of her more confrontational line.

And this is Sui’s insight. While the two-party system encourages us to think of Taiwan as having a binary choice – reunification on China’s terms vs giving China the finger (at the risk of invasion) – the vast majority of Taiwanese have no interest in either of those:

To the outside world, it seems like Taiwan faces one overwhelming choice – independence from or eventual unification with mainland China.

But surveys have consistently shown that Taiwanese people prefer not to have to choose between one or the other; instead they favour the middle ground.

While they believe their island is an independent country and would like it to be treated as such, most people don’t believe formal independence is achievable any time soon and prefer not to have damaging relations with Beijing.

Mending fences with the mainland is not some sort of preliminary step towards reunification. Or if it is, it requires some argument to establish that; it’s certainly not obvious on the face of it. As I said back when Tsai was first elected, “If closer relations are paving the way for a Communist takeover, it’s very hard to see how.”

The chance of the Taiwanese ever agreeing to Communist rule without military pressure seems close to zero. But applying that pressure gets harder, not easier, as relations improve. It also promises fewer benefits: if China is already reaping the rewards from economic co-operation with Taiwan, why jeopardise that by throwing the switch to confrontation?

It’s sometimes argued that greater integration with the mainland will reduce the Taiwanese will to fight if military resistance ever becomes necessary. That’s certainly possible, but the reverse is also true: economic prosperity may give Taiwan more to fight for and greater means of equipping itself for defence.

However it’s not only Taiwan that has changed government in recent years. Although it has nothing like Taiwan’s democratic process, China has also changed: the government of Xi Jinping is more aggressive and more ideological than its predecessors, and its rhetoric on Taiwan has been accordingly more bellicose – and no doubt would have been even without the advent of the Tsai administration.

But there’s a big gap between words and action, particularly when that action would involve an amphibious invasion of a heavily-armed and fortified country with a population the size of Australia’s, not to mention the potential shadowy protection of the United States nuclear umbrella.

National leaders do not always act rationally, even those who are as cold and calculating as Xi appears to be. It’s certainly not impossible that if Taiwan engages in some especially flagrant provocation, Xi or one of his successors could set in motion a series of escalations that might end in military conflict.

Taiwanese voters might reasonably assume that that’s a good reason to avoid poking the hornets’ nest and reap the fruits of co-operation instead. And if the DPP won’t learn that lesson, the KMT will be well placed for the next presidential election in January 2020.

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