11 January 2016

When islands stand up to superpowers: Taiwan’s election marks a new era of conflict

By James Bethell

If you want to know what a Chinese democracy might look like, Taiwan offers the answer. The world’s only Chinese-majority parliamentary democracy is also one of the feistiest, with a history of lavish banquets for the masses, faked presidential assassination, riotous rallies and vitriolic attack ads.

The elections this week on January 16th have a different tone to past polls.

The ding-dong of daily electioneering for Saturday’s vote is focused on the economy, a new development for a country with a sixty-year record of growth. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which led the defeated nationalist army over the waters to Taiwan in 1949, oversaw a one-party state and an economic miracle based on gruelling hard work, manufacturing the world’s widgets and computer chips, and a tight-knit corporatist state in which politicians and business leaders were in each other’s pockets.

Their claim to competence, the charmless KMT’s key attribute, evaporated in the last two years as the economy was wrong-footed by the Chinese slow-down. For the first time in the country’s recent history, jobs are scarce. Growth is a seemingly catastrophic 1% and young people are hit by an all-too-familiar combination of high property costs and competition from cheap foreign labour. My favourite cousin-in-law, Chuan-li, turned her back on work at the family’s metal-turning workshop to set up a trendy coffee-shop on a Taipei commuter road but finds that business is struggling so she has to find supplementary evening work as a wedding compere. It is a story of the times.

More than that, the party is utterly out of puff. The candidates are perceived as duff, grey-haired careerists with halitosis and dodgy Swiss bank accounts. They are falling out with each other, with some of the brightest setting up their own party. As everyone comments, there is an intangible but awkward “lack of vision” thing, for which you can read, “they just want to suck up to the Chinese and don’t care about Taiwan”.

This question of national identity is key. How does a rich democracy of 23 million citizens with its own political traditions handle its relationship with China, a menacing, one-party superpower with growing regional ambitions just 110 miles across the Straits?

The KMT’s solution was to drive the country strongly towards China. For his eight-year term of office, the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, signed dozens of treaties on everything from trade to tourism and cultural exchanges. This was an economically rewarding and diplomatically pragmatic fulfilment of his electoral manifesto. The meeting between President Ma and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015 should have sealed the deal on a new era of ever-closer union.

But somehow the world seems to have lurched in a different direction.

In the last ten years, China has emphatically over-taken Taiwan’s wealth. Its regional ambitions, though rarely stated, are clear to see. Taiwanese media track diligently the huge military budget, modern new ships in the navy’s expanding fleet, digital warfare and espionage against competitors, and the programme of growing islands out of reefs all over the region.

At the same time, the mood in Taiwan has changed profoundly in the twelve years since I met my Taiwanese wife and started an annual pilgrimage. In those early years, everyone I met seemed to think that Taiwan was essentially part of China, that the national destiny lay in ever-closer union with their former enemy and that one day the errant island state would be somehow re-absorbed in the greater Chinese family. Nowadays, feelings of national self-determination, a radical notion ten years ago, seem to predominate.

This growth of these China-sceptic feelings are born out in the polls. In 1992, just 18% those polled identified themselves as Taiwanese only. A further 46% thought of themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Today 59% call themselves Taiwanese, while 34% identify as both—ie, very few consider themselves Chinese first and foremost (according to the Election Studies Centre at National Chengchi University in Taipei).

Travelling around Taiwan, you get a profound sense of scepticism about the Chinese style of government. There are genuine fears about rights and property. There is a subliminal anger about the sense of powerlessness. The experience of Hong Kong, where promises of autonomy and respect for political institutions were rudely snuffed out after 1997, are not lost on Taiwan’s young.

The new mood is captured wonderful by Tsai Ing-wen, the candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and most likely the next President of Taiwan. The DPP were once badly-resourced underdogs, outplayed and occasional oppressed by the ruling KMT which had all the money, the celebrity endorsements from starlets, the business contacts and, it seemed, the Midas touch on the economy.

Nowadays, it is the DPP which is the classy act. Certainly they are fielding the stand-out candidate. English-speaking Tsai was educated at Cornell and the London School of Economics, had a successful high-flying diplomatic career negotiating with the Chinese, and she is a seasoned campaigner who has fought bitter electoral battles and bravely returned for more. Of her two heroines, she is less bombastic than Thatcher, and more like the understated Merkel who wins through dogged persuasion. She lives alone with two cats and claims she wears the same shoes for sixteen years.

So how does this all play out?

The biggest fear is that the DPP finds the domestic electoral temptation to pick fights with an impatient and over-bearing China irresistible.  There is a precedent is worrying – her DPP predecessor in the Presidential role, the populist and corrupt Chen Shui-bian, took a dangerously provocative approach, though at a time when China hegemony was less tangible.

You could easily see how haggling about delicately balanced diplomatic formulas escalates into territorial disputes about ambiguous treaties and the whole thing spirals into a conflict that drags in Taiwanese allies, particularly America which has a legal obligation to defend Taiwan.

In 1956, a Cold War row about the Taiwan Straits led to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff recommending the use of nuclear bombs against China, though thankfully President Eisenhower demurred. The fear is that history repeats itself and the US fleet could once again be facing the People’s Republic of China sparkling new aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Straits.

From what we know, Madame Tsai seems smart enough to wriggle around pressures for a full-blown Ch-exit, though we are guessing as she has said little, quite wisely. But the likely outcome of the election marks the end of an eight-year truce, the failure of an integration experiment and the start of a new focal point for regional conflict.

For observers in Britain, Taiwan’s relationship with China will bear a fascinating corollary. Britain and Taiwan are similarly stuck in an equally uncomfortable deadlock. Two island states proud of their distinctive democratic traditions trying, in the face of seemingly-overwhelming global changes, to maintain their dignity and choke down well-founded scepticism as they seem to be reluctantly submitting to larger blocs they’ve fought for generations.

My guess for Taiwan is that, after much huffing and puffing, when the national conversation moves to actually how Taiwan would prosper without its growing economic links with China, people will step back from the brink. There is no “go it alone” scenario. There’s no plausible plan B.

And my guess for Britain is much the same.

James Bethell is the Founder of Westbourne Communications.