Taiwan election: Voters turn their backs on closer ties with China

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Story highlights

  • Relations with China likely to deteriorate under Tsai Ing-wen
  • China views her traditionally pro-independence party warily

Richard C. Bush is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the mechanism through which the United States government conducts substantive relations with Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic relations. The opinions expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)Taiwan is the only Chinese-speaking society in the world that gives citizens the power to select their leaders through competitive free and fair elections.

Taiwan voters exercised that right Saturday and significantly changed the island's balance of political power.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), on the progressive side of the spectrum, won the presidency and an absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament, ousting the more conservative Kuomintang (KMT).
Richard C. Bush
China fears, rightly or wrongly, that the DPP is committed to legal independence from mainland China, and thus poses a challenge to its own objective of ultimate unification.
That could foster political instability between China and Taiwan -- something that Washington does not wish to see.

Lawyer turned politician

DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen won 56.1% of the vote. Originally trained as a lawyer, she has served as the chair of a government agency responsible for relations with Beijing and as a vice premier.
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More than anyone, she led the DPP back to power after a bad defeat in 2008. For the 113-seat legislature, Taiwan's Central News Agency reports that the DPP has secured 68 seats, making it the dominant party.
Moreover, polling suggests a shift in underlying attitudes that fueled today's vote. Over a period of years, the share of Taiwan people who regard themselves as Chinese -- as opposed to Taiwanese or a mix of the two -- has shrunk to 3.5%.
A major poll conducted weeks before the election by a major Taiwan magazine found that respondents were most concerned about domestic issues like the economy as opposed to relations with China.
Both major parties also thought that the economy had grown too dependent on China. Whether this shift is permanent, which would benefit the DPP long-term, will only become apparent in the months and years ahead.

What does the election mean for Taiwan's relations with China?

The mere fact that the DPP will take power does not mean that Tsai will make any moves toward legal independence from China.
She knows that less than 10% of Taiwan citizens want independence and the great majority want to preserve the status quo -- which is probably the main reason why that is one of her core policy objectives.
Nor does a Tsai presidency mean that Beijing will consider military action to rein in Taiwan. The chance of either worst case scenario occurring is very low.
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The deterioration in Taiwan's relation with China is more likely.
When previous Taiwan presidents have pursued policies that China regarded as a threat to its basic interests, they triggered a downturn in cross-Strait political relations, even as investment by Taiwan firms in China increased. Chen Shui-bian, elected in 2000 under the DPP banner, was the most recent case.
Beijing believes that legal independence is the goal of Tsai and her party, and it demands that she accommodates China by accepting certain principles as the basis for sustaining stable and productive cross-Strait relations.
In contrast, Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo and appears to believe that Beijing should accommodate her.
The most optimistic scenario is that these mutually exclusive stances are simply opening positions in a bargaining process that will now begin. Such a process would ensure that the present level of interaction will continue, and thus, build confidence.
The negative outcome is that each side will reinforce each other's fears rather than buoy hope. Neither side wants to see conflict and remains hopeful that continuity will be the order of the day.
Making that happen, however, will not be easy, and Beijing's perception of the meaning of this election will be important.

What are the implications for the U.S.?

Washington took the position that it was up to Taiwan voters to pick their next leader. Still, the United States has had a decade-long interest in cross-Strait peace and stability, and opposes any initiative by either side to unilaterally change the status quo.
The last eight years have served that interest because Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou pursued calculated engagements with China, particularly in trade and investment. He was willing to adhere to China's principles and yet maintain his own.
He was more successful in his first term than in his second because domestic public opinion began to question whether economic engagement indeed benefited Taiwan. What was important for the U.S. was that China-Taiwan interactions were more positive than it was in the past.
The Obama administration is acting quickly by dispatching Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing next week to meet with China's key officials responsible for Taiwan.
William Burns, Blinken's predecessor, will go to Taipei to meet with Tsai Ing-wen and other key individuals in the DPP.
This weekend's election, therefore, was only the beginning of an extended three-way interaction. With the inauguration set for May 20, the next four months will be crucial for Taipei and Beijing. As for what happens next, stay tuned.