President Tsai's Taiwan victory makes the region safer

Last Updated:2020-01-20

At a time of unmitigated gloom in international affairs, Saturdayʼs re-election
of Tsai Ing-wen for a second term as Taiwanʼs leader is a particularly bright
spot. Not only did she defeat the more China-friendly KMT leader, but the
election was conducted in a civilised and orderly manner. The strength of
and confidence in Taiwanʼs still relatively young democratic institutions were
on full display. The prospect of re-unification has just receded much further
into the distant future.
Beijing could hardly have been surprised by the result. After trailing in the
polls for the past two years, her approval rating began to rise inexorably
from September. She went into the election with a healthy lead in the polls,

winning the election by around 20 per cent.

Tsai Ing-wen waves after addressing supporters following her re-election on Saturday. Getty
Many domestic issues, of course, featured prominently in the election.
These are common across the developed world – slow economic growth,
increasing income inequality, inadequate public investment in social
services and infrastructure. Similarly are weak productivity growth and an
ageing population.
Against the background of the unexpected Hong Kong protests, mass civil
disobedience and at times nihilist anarchy, the election on this occasion
became more than previously one about Taiwanʼs future relations with
mainland China.
Although the Chinese state-run media and nationalist tabloids such as the
Global Times are indignantly railing against US influence in the election, no
one in Beijing could have been surprised that Hong Kong would come to
dominate the election. It became a quasi-referendum on Taiwanʼs future
relationship with the mainland.
Xi Jinpingʼs “China Dream”, which critically includes re-unification by the
centenary of the founding of the PRC in 2049, has slipped further from his
reach. Re-unification was to be his chief legacy, confirming his leading
position after Mao in the pantheon of Chinaʼs modern-day rulers.
Foreign commentators are likely to conclude that Tsaiʼs election has just
made the region a much more dangerous place. The implication is that Xi is
left with no other option, but military force and it is assumed, therefore, that
the US would have no other choice but to intervene militarily on Taiwanʼs
Neither is necessarily correct, nor should they form the basis of Australiaʼs
policymaking. The events of Hong Kong over the past year will have shown
even the most obdurate policymakers in Beijing that a generation has grown
up in both Hong Kong and Taiwan who simply do not identify with mainland
China in the way their parents and grandparents once did.
To that extent, the game is up for Beijing. No amount of military force is
going to turn this generation and the next into compliant subjects of Beijing.
She speaks, instead, not about sovereignty but of respect for
Taiwanʼs 'identity'.
The fact that Beijing exercised maximum constraint during what it would
have conceived as the “Crisis of Hong Kong” shows it understands the
limits to the use of force, and the impracticality of a garrisoned Hong Kong,
let alone Taiwan. The Communist Party is capable of making super big
mistakes, as it did with June 4, 1989, but it is also good at learning from its
mistakes. It is part of its Marxist dialectic genetic make-up.
Tsaiʼs rhetorical position, at least, on relations with the Mainland offers a
practical alternative to conflict. As a realist she recognises that a declaration
of independence from the Mainland would, short of war, entail such
horrendous costs that it is out of the question. It too is not going to happen.
She speaks, instead, not about sovereignty but of respect for Taiwanʼs
“identity”. If Beijing was blind to the importance of identity, or complacently
assumed that the peoples of Hong Kong and Taiwan at heart really
identified with the Mainland, then the violence on the streets of prosperous
law-abiding Hong Kong put paid to that. The message for Beijing from the
vote on Saturday was one of identity not sovereignty.
Therein lies the basis for an eventual diplomatic basis for stable relations
between Beijing and Taipei and one which is still consistent with the One
Country, Two Systems formula.
Beijing is a master of the art of strategic patience in a way few other
countries are. Its immediate priority is Hong Kong as a timetable exists for
its full integration into the Mainland under the basic law. Unlike Taiwan, the
people of Hong Kong have no choice.
Beijing will now set about changing over time how people identify
themselves. The two main priorities will be patriotic education and eroding
the integrity of the rule of law. This has already begun.
In all of this conflict is the least likely outcome, even if strong rhetoric and
posturing at times may suggest otherwise.
The assumption that the US would intervene militarily on behalf of Taiwan
also needs to be challenged firmly by Australian policymakers. Ten years
ago, it may have been reasonable to assume that short of a unilateral
declaration of independence by Taiwan provoking a military response by
China, the US would intervene to protect its regional hegemony and
reassure allies.
Today, the US has already ceded considerable strategic space to China in
East Asia; the US public have lost their appetite for foreign wars; Chinaʼs
military modernisation has massively raised to the cost of conflict; and there
would seem to be no scenarios under which the US could prevail in a
conflict close to Chinaʼs shores.
Peace across the Straits will be maintained by the impracticality and costs
of occupying and subjugating a people that now have a strong sense of
Taiwanese identity. Sundayʼs election has confirmed that.
Finally, another outcome from the election which should be noted in
Australia is that despite all the assertions about unprecedented efforts by
Beijing to influence the election using every devious trick from old fashioned
bribery to sophisticated social media trolling – all of which is most likely true
– it was an abject failure. Australiaʼ China Threat industry take note.