Beijing and Washington look on as Taiwan’s DPP picks new chairman

  • Post vacated by President Tsai Ing-wen after local election defeat up for grabs
  • Contest between pro-independence hardliners and moderates
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 3:28pm

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is voting on Sunday to elect a new chairman – a post vacated by President Tsai Ing-wen after the party’s recent electoral mauling – with both Beijing and Washington closely watching the results.

Tsai and her party won a 2016 landslide, sweeping away a government that had built much closer ties to mainland China over the previous decade.

The result rattled Beijing because Tsai refuses to acknowledge that the self-ruled island is part of “one China”.

Beijing cut communication with her administration, stepped up military drills, poached several of Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic allies and started economically pressuring the island.

But in November, Tsai’s DPP suffered a string of defeats in local elections, fuelled by a backlash over her domestic reforms and deteriorating ties with the mainland, easily Taiwan’s largest market.

Tsai resigned the party chairmanship but stayed on as president.

Analysts say the vote for the new party head will set the tone for the run-up to next year’s presidential election.

“It’s important because the international community, and [mainland] China, will be watching,” J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based expert with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said.

“Any major departure from long-standing policy under President Tsai could alarm international partners and give Beijing ammunition to further crack down on Taiwan.”

Results of the DPP voting are expected to be announced on Sunday evening.

Xi Jinping’s Taiwan comments likely to scuttle talks, analysts say

While Beijing has reacted frostily to Tsai, she is from a much more moderate wing within her party that favours talks.

She is squeezed between the mainland and more radical members of her own party who favour pushing for independence – something Taiwan has never formally declared.

One of those standing for the chairmanship is You Ying-lung, a polling expert deeply critical of Tsai.

He supported a recent call by four party heavyweights for Tsai not to seek re-election in 2020 – although he said the public should ultimately decide.

“The DPP has to win power in 2020 … right now I can’t see how we are going to win in the future,” You said in a Facebook post.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen urged to stand aside by hardline pro-independence faction

You’s opponent is former cabinet secretary general Cho Jung-tai, who is backed by leading DPP politicians.

Cho has taken a more conciliatory tone towards Tsai, pledging to promote unity and “restore confidence” in the party.

Yen Chien-Fa, a political analyst at Chien Hsin University, said that whoever came out on top would have significant influence on the 2020 campaign and whether Tsai was the candidate.

“A chairman who is at odds with Tsai will definitely be a minus [for the party],” he said.

A DPP schism in the run-up to 2020 could favour the Kuomintang, the pro-Beijing party that was turfed out two years ago.

It doubled its seats in November’s elections, even defeating the DPP in its traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung.

A DPP swing towards its more radical wing might also worry Washington.

The US remains Taiwan’s most powerful military ally but maintains the stance that Taipei must not move close to a formal declaration of independence for fear of stoking an invasion by Beijing.

On Wednesday Chinese President Xi Jinping described Taiwan’s unification with the mainland as “inevitable”, adding that force could be an option if independence was declared.