Taiwan’s New President

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen winning a Landslide Victory

In 16-January 2016, J.R. Wu and Ben Blanchard reported on Asia Times that Taiwan’s President-elect Tsai Ing-wen called for freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea, and for a peaceful resolution to the growing dispute in the area.

The President-elect also said Taiwan would continue to strengthen the island’s ties with Japan.

Based on President Tsai’s statement, former Philippine National Security Adviser ROILO GOLEZ believes that “China will have a big headache with Taiwan’s newly elected President and her awesome mass base. This will add to dissidenting voices coming from the Tibetan and Uighur ethnic groups, as well as protests and alliances from those states being bullied by China in the South China Sea and 23 other places where China has unjust territorial claims.”

Quartz.com reports that Taiwan’s first female President Tsai earned a law degree from Cornell; a PhD from the London School of Economics; and entered politics in the 1990s. Cindy Sui of BBC Taipei reports that being a mixture of Taiwan’s different ethnic groups helped Tsai win the trust of voters –her father being Hakka, her mother being Minnan, and her paternal grandmother being from the Paiwan indigenous tribe.

But “Tsai is not anti-China, not deep-green, the color of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and she’s never said she favours Taiwan’s independence,” according to Chang Jing-wen, who has written a book about Tsai’s career.

Kou Chien-wen, a political science professor at National Chengchi University, stated, “I don’t think she’s someone who is strongly ideological. She is very clever.” What Tsai makes clear is that she holds Taiwan’s democracy dear. Tsai agreed to take over the DPP during the 2008 financial crisis because she believed that a strong opposition was critical for democracy.

Tsai is steadfast in her belief that Taiwan’s future should be determined by its people. This is a direct challenge to China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province. What Beijing will have to decipher is where exactly Tsai stands on the issue of Taiwan’s independence and what her next move will be. She has skillfully avoided being crystal clear on this. She is a mystery not just to China, but also to Taiwanese who see her as “a quiet enigmatic force, and difficult to predict,” BBC reports.

Despite pressure from China and the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, Tsai has not openly accepted the “One China” policy, Beijing’s basis for future relations. Tsai has never publicly expressed support for unification, the so-called 1992 consensus, which necessitates both Taiwan and the mainland to each acknowledge there is only “One China.” Beijing considers Taiwan as part of China, and if Tsai’s regime is in opposition to this, Beijing may sanction Taiwan both economically and politically. China has never renounced the use of force should Taiwan declare independence.

Reuters reports that Tsai’s victory comes largely as a result of widespread discontent with the KMT which ran Taiwan for the past 8 years under President Ma Ying-Jeou. During his tenure, growth of Taiwan’s economy flat-lined despite deeper integration with China. The student-driven “Sunflower Movement” fully blossomed, and grassroots protests swept the island against ratifying the trade agreement with China.

Tsai will realize soon enough that Taiwan needs economic agreements with its biggest trade partner, China, particularly as export markets remain uncertain. However, her party will not look too kindly on economic dependence with the mainland as they fear this could lead to losing Taiwan’s independence and democracy, and buckling to China’s unification pressures.

Many Taiwanese believe that China will use economic dependence as a weapon to bring about the unification.

Cindy Sui of BBC Taipei reports that Tsai as then the National Security Advisor to former President Lee Teng-hui had helped draft his special state-to-state relations doctrine, where he defined relations between Beijing and Taipei as between two countries, angering China in the process.

But under the next President Chen Shui-bian, as head of the Mainland Affairs Council, Tsai worked with a hostile China and launched the “Small Mini Links” program in 2001. This allowed direct ferry transport and trade links between Taiwan’s outlying islands and China. Tsai later became a proponent for the first-ever chartered flights between Taiwan and the mainland.

Quartz.com reports that Tsai’s victory may put Beijing in a difficult position beginning with Tsai just preserving the “status quo” relationship with Beijing, and remaining silent about unification, while fighting for greater economic cooperation between Taiwan and China, regardless of the dissenters in her own party.

BBC reports that if Tsai is unable to win China’s trust, her term could be marked by a deadlock; or the peace accord with Taiwan could be cut off by Beijing. Tensions could resurface, worrying neighbors in the region and affecting ties between Beijing and Washington DC, which is bound by law to help defend Taiwan, and both could be drawn into a military conflict.

Tsai will likely walk a delicate line between Beijing and Taiwan’s DPP so as not to provoke or escalate tensions locally and internationally.

Taiwan has claims in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys. The Brookings Lawfare Institute finds that  Taiwan had originally drawn up the 9-dash line claim, later espoused by China. The Diplomat reports that Beijing was pleased with Taiwan’s stance that it “neither recognizes nor accepts” the tribunal’s ruling regarding the Philippines’ arbitral claims vs. China.

However, Taipei neither wants to be labeled as a violator of international law, nor does it want to alienate the U.S., which still functions as her main security protector.

Taiwanese officials have said they will not cooperate with China on territorial issues. The Brookings Lawfare Institute sees the possibility that the DPP government may endorse views of dissenting scholars who have long urged Taiwan to abandon the 9-dash line claim. The U.S. would surely welcome this move as being in compliance with international law.

Leapfrog LLC reports that 50% of global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, which sees 3 times more tanker traffic than the Suez Canal and more than 5 times traffic than the Panama Canal. In mid-2014, intra-ASEAN trade was 24% of total trade, which is expected to increase to 30% in 2020. Foreign Policy reports that a third of global ship-borne trade worth $5.3 trillion flows through the South China Sea annually. Thus, maintaining freedom of navigation has taken paramount importance for peace in the region.

Reuters reports that China claims almost all the disputed South China Sea, where it has constructed over reefs and shoals concurrently claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. IFC’s former Senior Counsel RAMON A.P. PATERNO opines, “This year, the Philippines awaits a decision on the merits of the case. A favorable arbitral decision would embolden others to embark on a similar legal voyage, especially ‘interested’ States who were formally granted by the Arbitral Tribunal the opportunity to serve as ‘Observers’ to the proceedings, upon their request, such as the Governments of Malaysia, and Vietnam. Incidentally, Thailand and Japan were also Observers.”

About the Author

Vicky Viray-Mendoza
Executive Editor, Maritime Review Magazine. Special interest in Marine Environment. Retired World Bank/IFC staff. Specializes in operations research, evaluation, and analysis. Education: Masters in Public Administration (George Washington University); Masters in Business Administration (University of Maryland); Post-Masters in International Finance and Global Markets (Georgetown University). BSC Management; BSC Accounting (Assumption College, San Lorenzo, Makati); Assumption High School (San Lorenzo, Makati).