Barry Pearton's picture

A WATCHING brief on the workings of a democratic Government in Taipei may offer Beijing some insight into how best to handle political pressures at home . . .

AT FIRST BLUSH, the outcome of Taiwan’s Presidential election could be seen as China’s worst nightmare come true – a maturing democracy implanted into a rebel province on its doorstep.
One of the first announcements by incoming Democratic People’s Party (DPP)
President, Tsai Ing-wen — to push for a formal Free Trade Agreement with Japan — is unlikely to comfort Beijing either.
Having frustrated attempts by Hong Kong’s student movement to edge the
HKSAR towards a greater semblance of
democracy, China could do without any
upstart social media campaign canvassing the benefits and successes of a democratic Government in Taipei.
But there may well be an upside.
In Hong Kong, what people really want is to vote for a Chief Executive of their choice, one they believe will champion with
Chinese authorities the issues (such as rising living costs) that impact their daily lives. They also want to preserve a distinct Hong Kong identity.
In Taiwan, the parameters are quite different – yet in some respects, similar.
Few of today’s Taiwanese were born in China, and soon, there will be just a handful. They increasingly identify as Taiwanese,
seeing themselves as guardians of traditional Chinese culture and language. Each new generation distances itself further from
Mainland mores and values.
Now, their democracy is firmly in place.
The Taiwanese voted overwhelmingly against the Kuomintang, who many saw as being too close to China and willing to compromise Taiwan’s economic independence for a fistful of export dollars. The KMT was seen as making Taiwan more and more
dependent on the whims of the Chinese economy and concessions that China might offer in ongoing Cross-Strait talks.
In truth, the potential list of economic
benefits to Taiwan of new arrangements with China had nearly run its course. Many
Taiwanese did not see real benefits flowing through as promised. And China was making it patently clear that political dialogue with the KMT was next on the agenda.
The people revolted.
China, wisely, has been guarded in its comments. It would have been anticipating a win to the DPP, but the extent of the KMT rebuff may have shocked. For its part, the DPP has also been cautious, in the spirit of realpolitik. In the shadows, Beijing maintains a single aim: reunification of Taiwan into the Motherland.
When last in office, from 2000 to 2008, the DPP alienated a number of sympathetic
governments and senior diplomats, including some in the United States, because of its inflexible attitude to China.  It has learned from that experience, and can be expected to adopt more pragmatic China policies.
Tsai Ing-wen, who is 59, will be sworn in as Taiwan’s new President on May 20.  At a post-election news conference, she vowed to strengthen national unity in Taiwan and, in a nod to China, to build a consistent, predictable and sustainable cross-strait relationship. “We will work towards maintaining the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait to bring the greatest benefits and well-being to the Taiwanese people,” she said.
A key priority for the Tsai Government will be to reduce Taiwan’s very high economic dependence on China, and in this, Japan may play a key role. The previous KMT Government had already strengthened trade and diplomatic ties with Japan, signing a Fisheries Agreement in 2013 and a Double Taxation Agreement in 2015. An Investment Agreement was also mooted.
Now, Tsai will be pushing for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Japan. She actively prioritised her relationship with Japan pre-election, visiting the country as recently as October.
Closer relations with Taiwan are also in Japan’s interests in a geopolitical sense, in particular in respect of Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. 
It is significant that, in what would be an historical ‘first’, China in late 2014 appeared to use Taiwan’s KMT Government as its proxy in seeking to cool China/Japan friction over the Senkakus.
Japanese angst over China’s actions in the South China Sea, coupled with disquiet over nuclear tests in North Korea, is bringing into clearer focus calls by some for Japan to strengthen its military capability (see
Puppets on Pyongyang’s String, page 6).
Taiwan, which under KMT rule actively sought a seat at the table on international affairs, may well find itself again playing honest broker in some future exchanges
between Tokyo and Beijing.
Meanwhile, in broadening its trade strategy, the DPP will be continuing the push by the KMT to establish FTAs with Australia, a number of countries in Asia and the European Union. It is also continuing a strong pitch for membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Formalisation of an FTA with Japan could encourage some other countries otherwise wary of upsetting China to embrace closer relations with Taiwan.
For its part, China will need to be pragmatic and to maintain a balance in its relationship with the DPP over the balance of 2016, taking into account that sections of the DPP support base will have their own expectations of the new Government.
At the same time, a close-up watching brief on the actual workings of a (Chinese) democratic government may offer Beijing some insight into how best to handle a difficult situation in Hong Kong – and, indeed, to consider options for China’s own future.
The Basic Law negotiated between London and Beijing to establish the HKSAR in 1997 did contain a vague roadmap indicating that Hong Kong people could expect a greater say in their own destiny. There were even suggestions at the time (and since) that success in local government experimentation in Hong Kong could offer a blueprint for a form of popular local government in Shenzhen, on the Hong Kong border.
In recent years, China has, in fact, become more flexible in permitting freer choice of candidates for local government, especially in Guangdong.
Beijing will not welcome the election outcome in Taiwan, but there may be lessons to be learned – and those lessons could be timely and valuable for the leadership of a China that is increasingly middle-class, with tens of millions of its people embracing new values learned through tourism, online shopping and the internet.

* Barry Pearton is Publisher of ATI Magazine