Why Taiwan is likely to remain an important card for US to play against China

  • Although Saturday’s elections saw the independence-leaning DPP suffer heavy losses, observers do not expect many major shifts in policy as a result
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 8:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 10:51pm

Taiwan is expected to remain a major flashpoint for China and the US despite the election defeat of the independence-leaning ruling party over the weekend.

Analysts said the self-ruled island was still seen as an important card for Washington to play against the mainland, while there was no sign that President Tsai Ing-wen would bow to pressure from Beijing by accepting the one-China policy.

After Saturday’s election, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was left in control of just six cities and counties on the island, while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), widely seen as more friendly towards Beijing, was in control of 15 cities and counties.

Its gains included the DPP’s traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan and the second largest city of Taichung, home to the island’s light industry.

Taiwan election lost on local issues, not relations with mainland

Tsai, who has resigned as DPP’s chairwoman on Saturday, will remain as the president, while her premier William Lai, who had offered to quit on Saturday evening, said on Monday that he had agreed to stay on to help stabilise political situation.

Although Chinese state media attributed the poll results to Tsai’s “separatist stance” most observers said the result was more likely a reflection of voter anger over economic stagnation.

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Honolulu, said he did not think the DPP’s losses would cause the party of “any formulation implying that Taiwan is part of China”, adding: “that is the pivot on which cross-strait relations will either improve or not improve.”

Washington’s increasingly antagonistic mood towards Beijing also reduces the prospect that Donald Trumps’s administration, which has stepped up its military and diplomatic support for the island, will make any major changes in policy.

“I don’t sense that Washington has seen Tsai’s cross-strait policy as unreasonable,” said Roy.

“Some in the US policy-making community might see the election result as a welcome swinging of the pendulum in Taiwan back toward a cross-strait policy that lowers tensions with China, but others think the real troublemaker is China rather than Taiwan.”

Taiwanese president resigns as party chairwoman after huge polls defeat

Xin Qiang, a specialist in Sino-US relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the Trump administration’s growing view of China as a rival to be confronted could increase the temptation to use Taiwan as a “bargaining chip”.

“The US may be more proactive in playing the Taiwan card … and because of the escalating tensions, the US would be unlikely to make any major changes in its Taiwan policy.”

Taiwan may be one of the issues raised during Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Argentina over the weekend, and Beijing has previously warned that relations between the two sides would be jeopardised if this “core interest” is infringed.

In breach of diplomatic protocol Trump had a phone conversation with Tsai before he took office, which triggered a furious response from Beijing.

Zhu Songling, a professor at the Institute of Taiwan Studies in Beijing Union University, said while the election losses were a blow to the DPP, the mainland authorities should not expect major shifts in policy from Tsai’s government.

Despite the current trade war, Beijing has said it regards Taiwan as the “most important and sensitive” are in its relations with the US.

Yen Chien-Fa, a professor of business administration from Taiwan’s Chien Hsin University of Science said Taiwan would ultimately pick Washington over Beijing if forced to choose.

“In reality Taiwan has been influenced by the US at every level and China is only limited to some talks,” Yen said.

“Taiwan must choose to side with the US though its economic ties with [mainland] China would be virtually cut off.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng and Kristin Huang