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China Relations Stumble after Beijing Skeptic Wins Reelection in Taiwan

Supporters of Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidate, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen cheer for Tsai's victory in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.
Supporters of Taiwan's 2020 presidential election candidate, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen cheer for Tsai's victory in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 11, 2020.

Taiwan’s ever-testy relations with China stumbled again after a Beijing skeptic was reelected to the presidency and her party grabbed a legislative majority Saturday, but analysts and officials in Taipei say this dip won’t go as deep as others.

A day after President Tsai Ing-wen won with more than 8.1 million votes and a 57% majority, China’s official Xinhua News Agency called the outcome "a development that deeply worries people who hope for peace" and slung charged language at the reelected leader.

"Tsai and the DPP used dirty tactics such as cheating, repression and intimidation to get votes, fully exposing their selfish, greedy and evil nature," the commentary said, referring to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

This language hearkens back to the harsh words China used after Tsai won her first election in 2016. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan but Tsai rejects the Beijing government’s condition for dialogue that both sides belong under one flag. The two sides have been separately ruled since the 1940s.

China followed up from 2016 through 2019 by passing military planes near the island, cutting back on Taiwan-bound tourism and persuading seven countries to drop recognition of the Taipei government.

Shallow dip

Tsai anticipated more pressure from China in a speech Saturday but said she would try not to exacerbate it.

"Pressure from China will continue to exist and could even become heavier," Tsai told a news conference. Facing China’s threats, she said, "We will stick with our non-provocative, non-adventurist attitude to do our utmost in ensuring peace and stability between the two sides."

Some scholars believe China expects calm in relations with Taiwan because Tsai no longer needs to flex muscle against Beijing. Tsai’s campaign focused voter attention on China’s aim of ruling Taiwan the way it now governs Hong Kong a setup that has sparked mass protests in the former British colony since June.

"I don’t think China will ever back off," said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. But Chinese officials hope eventually to start dialogue, she said. For the immediate aftermath of the election, "it is in the mainland’s interest not to overplay it," Sun said.

Will not get worse’

Tsai will be president for the next four years, while the ruling party will hold a majority in parliament with 61 of 113 seats.

China’s reaction is just verbal, not a prelude to new actions against Taiwan, said Wang Ching-Hsing, assistant political science professor at National Cheng Kung University.

But formal talks never held under Tsai to date are unlikely to take place, he said. Chinese President Xi Jinping will insist on his goal of ruling Taiwan, an idea that most Taiwanese have said in surveys over the past year they reject. Tsai backs that majority.

The president called Saturday for "parity:" in relations, meaning "neither side denies the fact of the other’s existence."

"I wouldn’t think cross-Strait relations will not get worse over the coming months, but they won’t get any better," Wang said. "If you want Xi Jinping to take back ‘one country, two systems’, I think that’s of utmost difficulty," he said.

In January a year ago, the Chinese president gave a speech advocating that China rule Taiwan under a "one country, two systems" model that’s supposed to allow a measure of local autonomy. Beijing has ruled Hong Kong that way since 1997.

Tsai suggested Saturday the two sides set up communications if China respects the will of Taiwanese people for autonomy.

China, for its part, omitted Taiwan from a late 2019 new year’s speech on its governance of Hong Kong, Sun noted.

Beijing authorities are still focused on an unresolved Hong Kong protest situation, Wang added.