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Taiwan Expected to Adjust Its Hands-Off Stance Toward China after Elections

By Ralph Jennings December 05, 2018

Taiwan is expected to adjust its largely hands-off stance toward political rival China by 2020, following losses for the ruling party in local elections last month, while still holding a middle ground between independence and unification.

The government of President Tsai Ing-wen may take a slightly more accommodating stance toward China, some analysts believe, possibly by focusing on economic relations over politics. Conversely, some say, the government could swing further toward Washington to resist China. Tsai faces pressure to do something palpable before the Taiwan presidential race of 2020.

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but the island is self-ruled and 83 percent of Taiwanese like it that way, according to government figures. Tsai, elected in 2016, rejects Beijing's dialogue condition that both sides see themselves as part of a single China, and Beijing responded by cutting off talks.

"For the next stage, ahead of the presidential election, I think the roles of Beijing and Washington will be stronger than before, therefore whether it's the Democratic Progressive Party or President Tsai, it's required that you make some policy adjustments," said Andy Chang, China studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Decisions in Taipei can quickly thaw or chill China-Taiwan relations, which have raised military tension multiple times over the past seven decades. Unhappy with Tsai, the globally powerful Chinese government periodically flies military aircraft near Taiwan and squelches Taiwanese foreign diplomacy.

The two sides have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the losing Nationalists fled to Taiwan and rebased their government.

Voters link China, economy

Elections of mayors and county magistrates in Taiwan November 24 had little to do with China policy, Tsai said last week. But some voters equate today's China-Taiwan stalemate with dips in local tourism and trouble exporting agricultural products. A China-Taiwan dialogue could produce agreements that open Taiwan further to the $12 trillion-plus Chinese economy.

Election results handed 15 of Taiwan's 22 top local seats to candidates from the opposition Nationalist Party, which today advocates closer China relations including a resumption of the dialogue that its government carried out before 2016.

Tsai will stick to her overall China stance, despite elections, because she has sunk so much time already into straddling the line between keeping distance from Beijing without declaring formal independence, scholars believe. Independence would be a red line for China. Tsai is eligible for reelection in 2020, likely against an opposition candidate who openly backs stronger China ties.

"If Tsai makes a change, then her most basic currency is gone," said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Economic cooperation

Ruling party mayors and magistrates have expressed willingness to work with the new Nationalist mayor of the southern city Kaohsiung on developing local tourism for people from China. On Tuesday, the domestic China Times website quoted Taiwan's chief China policymaker stressing local economic development and "a bit less discussion of politics."

Those moves may herald a "softened tone" toward Beijing's dialogue condition, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. Kinder language may follow, he said.

"(It's) probably a softened tone toward the one-China policy or Taiwanese sovereignty, whatever," Lin said. "There are many ways of going around. She could express openness toward a one future China or a one historic cultural China."

Resisting Beijing via Washington

Decisions in Washington and Beijing will inevitably affect China policy in Taipei, Chang said. China, for example, rolled out a list of relaxed rules earlier this year to lure Taiwanese over for work and study. The U.S. government periodically offers arms sales and sends high-level officials to Taipei.

Taiwanese generally prefer a "pro-U.S." policy over a "pro-China" one, Chang said, and that view will establish direction for Tsai. Taiwan-U.S. relations have leapt ahead this year with supportive legislation in Washington and occasional passage of U.S. navy ships near the island. China disapproves but has taken little counter-action as it struggles with Washington over trade.

Leaders in Taipei will reference public opinion to chart any new China policy, said Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy minister with the government's Mainland Affairs Council.

"The government will respect the ideas and suggestions from all circles and do reviews on a rolling basis to enforce related Taiwan-mainland China ties, together maintaining the status quo of peace in the Taiwan Strait," Chiu said.

China may give Taiwan a break from the diplomatic and military pressure of the past two years as it waits for Tsai to take stock of the November elections, Huang said.

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