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Formidable Challenges Await Taiwan’s Re-elected President Tsai Ing-wen



The election results show that Taiwanese people are committed to upholding democratic values demonstrated and that Taiwan deserves to be treated fairly by the international community.


The presidential election in Taiwan on Saturday, January 11, saw the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, 63, reelected in a landslide, much to China’s displeasure.


Tsai’s refusal to buckle under the pressure from Beijing was a major reason why she was able to garner a record number of votes — more than eight million — with Taiwan voters delivering a resounding “NO” to the demand by Chinese President Xi Jinping for reunification with the Communist mainland.


Tsai’s next four-year term will commence on May 20. But after the cheering has stopped, President Tsai will find herself facing many thorny issues.



In her New Year’s message, President Tsai had said: “In 2020, Taiwan will once again be the focus of the world’s attention. We each have a responsibility to protect our democracy. I hope that all of my fellow citizens will show the world our courage and solidarity, and ensure that the light of democracy and freedom once again shines on Taiwan and the entire world.”



World on the Lookout for Chinese Interference


President Tsai clearly had in mind the presidential election and beyond. As she predicted, the eyes of the world were on the January 11 general election. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 113 foreign media organizations had sent 235 journalists to cover the election and try to discern the future course that Taiwan would take.


In the fight for a second term, Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) attacked the main opposition candidate, Han Kuo-yu, and the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) as a “proxy for the Chinese Communist Party.” She portrayed herself as a “defender of democracy.”


Tsai’s chances of being elected to a second term received a strong boost as the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong against the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intensified last summer. Prior to that, Tsai’s standing in public opinion polls had been very low.



In a press conference for the foreign media on January 9, Taiwan Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu pointed to past interference by Beijing in Taiwan presidential elections, including military exercises near Taiwan and support for specific candidates by Taiwanese businesses with a large presence on the mainland.


He emphasized, “Chinese interference is a daily occurrence.” He also characterized Taiwan as the “first line of defense” for democracy against tyranny.


During Tsai’s first term, which began in 2016, her administration refused to accept the Beijing principle that there is “only one China” and associated claims, such as “Taiwan is a part of China.” As a result, Beijing cut off all dialogue with the Taiwan government.


In response to Tsai’s refusal to accede to Beijing’s demands, China went on the offensive by actively seeking to sever Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other countries. Whereas Taiwan had relations with 22 foreign nations when Tsai took office, the total now stands at just 15.



China’s Steps to Isolate Taiwan Frustrated



China has taken other steps as well in its attempt to isolate Taiwan, such as having it excluded from the World Health Organization (WHO) assembly and other international organizations.


In order to counter the pressure from China, the Tsai regime has sought to bolster lifelines with “countries with shared values,” including Japan, the United States, and Europe. (EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen Seeks Security Talks with Japanese Government) 


Washington D.C.’s support for Taiwan in particular has become more overt since the launch of the Trump administration in January 2017. Tsai has boasted that the current state of Taiwan-U.S. relations is the “best in history.”


The Taiwan government has also beefed up assistance to countries in the South Pacific, a region where Beijing has been especially keen to rupture Taiwan’s existing diplomatic relations. In providing such assistance, it has sometimes acted in concert with Japan, the U.S., and Australia. 


Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI), a U.S.-based think tank, describes the situation as follows: “In addition to Taiwan’s increasing strategic value (in the context of the U.S.-China rivalry), U.S. support for Taiwan stems from shared values in terms of such things as democracy and human rights. This support is supra-partisan in nature, so even if the administration changes (in Washington D.C.), you won’t see any abrupt shift in that regard.”




Managing the Bonds of Economic Dependence


Even as Taiwan strengthens collaboration with Western nations, the problem of its close economic relations with China remains.


One of Tsai’s campaign promises in 2016 was to escape dependence on the China market. She proposed the “New Southbound Policy” to strengthen economic collaboration with India and countries in Southeast Asia. (READ: Companies Returning from China Boost Taiwan’s Economy)

Nevertheless, in 2019 (through October) Taiwan’s ratio of export dependency on China stood at 39.7%, essentially unchanged from 40.1% in 2016 — the year that Tsai took office.


Tsai has defiantly said, “We will not exchange our sovereignty for short-term economic benefits.” Yet, China’s economic influence over Taiwan still looms large — a fact that cannot be ignored. There is much concern that in the aftermath of the election debacle for pro-Beijing forces on Taiwan, China will scrap the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which in effect constitutes a cross-straits free trade agreement (FTA).


Wu Jiemin, a researcher at the Academia Sinica (a research organization directly under the President’s Office), warns that post-election Taiwan is not out of the woods.



“China’s meddling will continue in the future,” he said. “China’s proxies [in the presidential election] may have been beaten, but that does not mean that we will be able to live our days without worry.”


(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)



Author: Yasuto Tanaka, Sankei Shimbun Taipei Bureau Chief


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