Taiwan’s politics are complicated and defy the typical left-right divide. The DPP has traditionally favored formal independence, although Tsai is cautious and has made it clear she will not take any steps in this direction that could give Beijing a pretext for an invasion. Her government is focused on preserving Taiwan’s practical autonomy and freedoms. The other party is the Kuomintang (KMT), which extended its rule over Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists. The KMT favors closer ties with Beijing and eventual reunification, albeit on very different terms to those proposed by Xi. Young people in Taiwan have no emotional attachment to the past and want to preserve the only way of life they have known.
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Beijing made its feelings known quickly. Commenting on the election, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said the “international consensus” on “the one-China principle,” which holds that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory … will not be affected in the least by a local election.” “Those who split the country will be doomed to leave a stink for 10,000 years,” he said. The Global Times, a newspaper operated under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party, called for “a plan to crack down on Tsai’s new provocative actions, including imposing military pressure, which is an unbearable option for Taiwan authorities.”
The big question hanging over Taiwan now is how Beijing will react over the next four years. I spent the past five days in Taipei with a small group of Americans and Australians to observe the elections. We also had an opportunity to speak with Tsai and other senior officials.
“We need to be candid,” Tsai told us. “If we are vague, Beijing may misjudge the situation. In the past, people have gotten concerned when we are direct, but the situation has changed. We need to be direct to prevent misjudgment.” Tsai reminded me of Angela Merkel. A 63-year-old academic, she is both principled and cautious. “We must be clear, but not provocative; loud, but careful,” she said.
Taiwan officials told me that more than 70 countries had sent messages of congratulations to Tsai and the people of Taiwan on the election, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They said the messages were longer and arrived faster than in previous years. This may seem like a small thing, but in a place where protocol is often seen as a matter of survival, it mattered. The officials pointed in particular to Europe, where they said they had witnessed a sea change in recent years. As European countries experienced direct pressure from China on a variety of fronts, they have seen Taiwan in a new light.
Taiwan officials believe that Xi miscalculated on Taiwan. He saw that Tsai was politically vulnerable and sought to increase pressure, but it had the opposite effect. Xi has decades of experience in dealing with Taiwan and sees himself as the expert in chief. Now that his judgment has been revealed to be fallible, the question is whether he will be impatient and seek to achieve unification through coercive means, or whether he has enough on his plate. Taipei hopes that Xi will reach out to Tsai to ease tensions. The officials pointed out that Tsai is not an ideologue. If China does not deal with her now, it may have to deal with future leaders who they will perceive as more difficult. There is no prospect of leaders who will engage on the one country, two systems idea, even if the KMT were to make a comeback.