High stakes for China and U.S. in Taiwan’s election

Tsai Ing-wen, right, campaigns Wednesday in Taipei as presidential candidate of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.
Tsai Ing-wen, right, campaigns Wednesday in Taipei as presidential candidate of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party. Associated Press

Every four years, the Chinese Communist Party watches and worries as its “renegade province” – Taiwan – holds an election to pick a new leader. As Taiwan’s voters prepare to go to the polls Saturday, Beijing is again nervous.

Taiwan’s balloting is almost certain to hand the presidency to a constituency – the Democratic Progressive Party – that is far less friendly to Beijing than Taipei’s current government. While the result is unlikely to spark war between China and Taiwan, it will mean heightened tensions in a part of Asia that has been calm the last eight years.

Why should Americans care?

Taiwan is an economic powerhouse much larger than its population of 23 million. It is Asia’s fifth-largest economy and one of the top 25 in the world. Key Taiwanese companies such as Foxconn – the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer – run assembly plants in China. Foxconn makes the electronic playthings that many Californians take for granted, including iPhones and Kindles.

Saturday’s vote is almost certain to elect a woman as Taiwan’s president for the first time. Tsai Ing-wen is a smart academic and an increasingly savvy politician who could be in office for as long as eight years.

Unlike the current ruling party – the Kuomintang or KMT – Tsai’s party doesn’t support the “One-China principle,” which presumes Taiwan to be part of a larger China. While Tsai has taken steps to reassure Chinese Communist Party leaders by saying she won’t push for outright independence, they remain hostile to her and her party. Communist Party leaders apparently believe their legitimacy depends on steady progress toward unifying Taiwan with the mainland. Tsai’s rise stands in the way of that goal.

Taiwan’s fate poses tricky challenges for U.S. policymakers. The United States has provided military support for Taiwan ever since Chiang Kai-shek lost the Chinese civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949, bringing his KMT government with him. While the U.S. withdrew diplomatic recognition for Taiwan decades ago, it is obligated under a 1979 law to provide the Taiwanese government “with arms of a defensive character” and “to resist any resort to force” against Taiwan. That wording could draw the U.S. military into a war should China ever decide to attack.

The China-Taiwan dance will be worth watching for years ahead. Since 1949, Taiwan has been dominated by the ghost of Chiang Kai-shek. But his Kuomintang party is in free fall. Polls show Tsai winning handily, with her party possibly taking a majority in Taiwan’s legislature.

Chinese state media will surely fulminate at that outcome, but party leaders may be more nuanced in their reaction. As is widely recognized, Taiwan is undergoing a generational shift, with young people alarmed about their job prospects and worried that their economy is too dependent on the mainland.

While many in Taiwan privately oppose unification with China, that isn’t the reason voters are rejecting the KMT. They are rejecting it, in part, because the current government of Ma Ying-jeou has worked so hard to build stronger economic ties with Beijing. Those efforts have enriched some in Taiwan, but they also have made the country more vulnerable to a downturn in China’s economy, which is now playing out.

Here on the mainland, the Communist Party clearly recognizes the high stakes. Its propaganda arm is working overtime to suppress any information about the Taiwan election. Only a small number of Chinese citizens – those with the forbidden technology to break through the “Great Firewall” – have been reading Taiwanese websites to track the elections.

China’s leaders don’t want this happening every four years. As they know, democracy is contagious. The longer Taiwan keeps selecting its leaders, the better the chance China will come down with the flu.

Stuart Leavenworth, The Bee’s former editorial page editor, spent the last two years as McClatchy’s bureau chief in China. He is currently on leave, based in Beijing. He can be contacted at