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Assessing Power Transition in Taiwan: From KMT to DPP

Prashant Kumar Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 01, 2016

    On May 20, 2016, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was sworn in as the 14th President of Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), recognised as a sovereign country only by 22 countries. She defeated her rival Eric Chu of the Kuomintang (KMT) by a huge margin of 25 per cent vote in the presidential election held in January this year, thus bringing the eight-year long rule of the KMT to an end.

    Earlier in 2008, KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou had wrestled power from the DPP, which too had been in power for two consecutive terms since 2000.Tsai’s ascendency to the top post is an important development from the point of view of Taiwan’s domestic politics, cross-strait relations and over all regional security. Given India’s growing thrust on ‘Act East’, India too needs to take note of the political shift in Taiwan and its likely impact at the wider regional level.

    Power Transition

    The latest power transition is the third since 1996, the year Taiwan had its first direct presidential election on the basis of universal suffrage with multi-party system. Prior to it, during KMT’s single-party authoritarian rule, Taiwan was under Martial Law for almost forty years (1949-1987). It was President Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000), often referred to as ‘Mr. Democracy’, who finally ushered multi-party democracy in Taiwan and won the first election too.

    However, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, a party which fought for democracy, and whose genesis is traced to party-less political groupings outside the KMT (Tangwai, 黨外) since formation of political parties was proscribed under the Martial Law, ended KMT’s long reign in 2000. Chen was twice elected as president, first in 2000 and then again in 2004. KMT’s come back under the leadership of Ma in 2008 was the second power transition. It is noteworthy that all the above mentioned transitions were peaceful and orderly, implying that democracy has taken deep roots in Taiwan.

    The victory of the DPP, a party known for its opposition to the 1992 Consensus or the ‘One China’ principle1, proves that the Taiwanese voters are by and large immune to mainland China’s alleged efforts to influence the outcome of the elections in favour of the KMT, which supports unification but on its own terms. Last but not least, with the DPP’s victory Taiwan also got its first female president, and the second in Northeast Asia after President Park Geun-hye of South Korea.2

    With DPP coming back to power, the normalcy and the stability achieved in the cross-strait relations under President Ma is likely to be tested. It might bring back international political maneuverings witnessed earlier in cross-strait relations, which the Ma government deftly handled by crafting a tacit and mutually agreed diplomatic truce with mainland China. His efforts had led to opening of ministerial-level talks between the two sides and finally a summit-level meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (though unofficial) at Singapore in November 2015.

    Now the question is to what extent the new DPP government would be able to sustain the momentum built by the previous government for improved cross-strait relations. China’s decision in March 2016 to finally restore its diplomatic relations with Gambia, which had severed its nearly two-decade old diplomatic ties with Taiwan in November 2013, might be a warning signal for the newly-elected DPP government. Gambia was one of the few African countries to recognise Taiwan.

    Unlike the KMT, the DPP does not endorse the 1992 Consensus or the ‘One China’ principle –– a prerequisite for acceptance as a legitimate dialogue partner by mainland China. Although Tsai in her swearing-in speech tried to strike a conciliatory note by making it clear that her government would respect the historical fact of the 1992 talks, but anything less than unambiguous support for the 1992 Consensus may not be enough for China. It is important to note that due to normalization of ties with mainland China, the cross-strait trade today stands at US$ 115 billion, withTaiwanese FDI worth $9.83 billion in China, among other gains.

    Tsai however is not likely to take to provocative rhetoric and policies akin to the previous DPP government led by President Chen Shui-bian, which had miffed even the United States (US), Taiwan’s long-standing security guarantor first under the Mutual Defence Treaty from 1954-55 to 1979 and thereafter under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979. Washington saw Chen Shui-bian government as a potential spoiler in its effort to solicit China’s support for its ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan as well as the war in Iraq. However, much has changed in the East Asian security scenario since then. The US is back in the Asia-Pacific with its long-term ‘rebalance’ strategy perceived to be aimed at China.

    The maritime security situation revolving around the disputed islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea too has sharply deteriorated since 2008 or 2010. More than six decades after the Second World War, Japan again appears to have emerged as the main strategic opponent, in addition to the US, in the Chinese perception. This is quite evident from China’s 2014 white paper on its military strategy released in May 2015. In fact, compared to white papers on defence released before 2012, where Japan is generally referred to as a US security ally, greater attention has been given to Japan along with the US in the 2012 and 2014 white papers. The latest white paper clearly states that, “Japan is sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism, overhauling its military and security policies.”3

    Similarly, in Japan’s conventional strategic view, military exigency ‘in situations in areas surrounding Japan’, basically an allusion to a China-Taiwan conflagration, is considered detrimental to Japan’s security interest.4 Moreover, a Taiwan not unified with China is considered vital to the protection of its sea lanes. In fact, Japan is perceived to have greater comfort level with the DPP due to its relatively less aggressive approach towards the dispute over islands in the East China Sea (or for that matter in the South China Sea too).

    Thus, DPP’s return to power might have come as a breather for Japan. It should be a welcome development for the US too since Japan and Taiwan –– disputants in the East China Sea, besides China –– and Taiwan and the Philippines –– the two disputants among several in the South China Sea –– are its allies in some form or the other. Incidentally, Ma government had to deal with speculations about its likely cooperation with mainland China on the issue of disputed islands, leading to some unease in Washington and Tokyo. Similarly, there could be concerns over the DPP’s return to power at such critical juncture as it has the potential to give a new twist to the delicate security situation in the region.

    India and DPP-led Taiwan

    As for India, it figures quite prominently in the DPP’s vision of international relations. While the previous KMT government led by President Ma pursued its relations with India without apparent political enthusiasm, DPP has been known for its politically more nuanced view of India. In fact, the DPP has long stood for strengthening Taiwan’s relations with major democracies –– the US, India, Japan and Australia. In her recent as well as earlier 2012 presidential campaign, Tsai is known to have called for building stronger ties with world’s major democracies.

    The foundation of India-Taiwan people-to-people relations we see today was largely laid during DPP’s earlier government led by President Chen shui-bian (2000-08). At that point of time, DPP had even proposed the idea of forming an India-Taiwan-Japan triangle, a provocative proposition in the context of alarmingly worsened cross-strait relations under the Chen government. However, they had found an enthusiastic supporter in former Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, who at the time was not holding any governmental position. He had even delivered a speech at Taiwan Think Tank, affiliated to DPP, in 2004.5

    The new DPP government led by President Tsai is likely to focus on strengthening ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and also with India, as part of her ‘new southbound’ policy. In her speech during the swearing-in ceremony, Tsai had stated:

    We will share resources, talents and markets with other countries to achieve economies of scale and to allow the efficient use of resources. This is the spirit on which our “New Southbound Policy” is based. We will broaden exchanges and cooperation with regional neighbors in areas such as technology, culture and commerce, and expand in particular our dynamic relationships with ASEAN and India.6

    It may be posited here that while India should redefine and revamp its people-to-people relations with Taiwan, which has a thriving innovation-led economy that puts premium on educational excellence in all fields, it should not at the same time be led by any misplaced strategic enthusiasm. The WikiLeaks cables from the earlier DPP government do refer to Taiwan’s desire “of parlaying closer economic, political, and educational ties with India into an economic and even strategic counterweight to China's regional dominance.” They also throw light on how India sought “Taiwan investment along with manufacturing and commercial expertise but [rejected] the idea of forming any sort of counterweight to China.”7

    The way India earlier handled certain political overtures from the Chen shui-bian government, be it the then Vice-President Annette Lu’s desire to visit Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake with aid and relief or the establishment of the Taiwan India Cooperation Council (TICC) in Taipei in 2006, clearly points to its cautious approach while engaging Taiwan. Although the stated objective of the TICC was to promote economic relations, it had a strong political overtone in terms of its membership composition.

    As India’s engagement has increased manifold in the region and that too amidst increasing tension, India needs to be rather careful in its dealings with Taiwan under the DPP administration. The cross-strait relations are a ‘knot’ between China, Taiwan and the US. Creating a strong balance of power context involving Taiwan vis-à-vis China may not be received well in the region. In fact, it could further complicate the environment for the realisation of India’s ‘Act East’ policy.

    Instead, India needs to closely watch China’s behavior and how regional countries are responding to it; basically, how China deals with the DPP government in Taiwan8, the quality of cross-strait relations and also the attitude of the US and Japan towards the DPP government in times to come. This will not only reflect the level and the nature of Taiwan’s engagement with the region and the wider international community, but will also help in determining the scope of people-to-people relations between India and Taiwan under the new DPP government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. The 1992 Consensus between the KMT government in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) denotes the modus vivendi of ‘One China’, with ‘Respective Interpretation’ that facilitated the opening of the cross-strait dialogue in early 1990s. The essence of this consensus is while the two sides agree on ‘One China’ and that Taiwan is its part, for the KMT, China is Republic of China (ROC), and for the Communist Party of China (CPC), it is PRC. This means that the KMT believes in eventual unification of Taiwan with mainland China, but differs on the terms under which the unification will take place. On the other hand, the DPP, which views Taiwan in its own right, independently of China, believes that Taiwan’s future, be it unification with mainland China or de jure independence, will eventually be decided by the Taiwanese people. Thus, it rejects the 1992 Consensus and the ‘One China’ principle.
    • 2. Taiwan has had a legacy of women actively participating in the struggle for democracy during the Martial Law and later in parliamentary politics. Earlier, the Chen shui-bian government (2000-08) had a woman vice-president Annette Lu. More recently, Tsai’s rival in the January presidential election initially was a female candidate from KMT, Hung Hsiu-chu, though her candidature was dropped in favour of the party chairman Eric Chu. Later in March, she was elected as the first female chairperson of the KMT, replacing Eric Chu who had resigned in the wake of his disastrous defeat in the presidential election.
    • 3.Full Text: China's Military Strategy”, Xinhuanet, May 26, 2015 (Accessed May 30, 2016).
    • 4. The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defence Cooperation issued in September 1997 used the expression ‘in situations in areas surrounding Japan’. Although the updated guidelines issued in 2015 have dropped the same, it identifies “[defending] waters surrounding Japan” and “[securing] the safety of sea lines of communication” as the shared responsibility of the US and Japan. See “The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation (September 23, 1997)” and “The Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation”, Japanese Ministry of Defence, April 27, 2015 (Accessed May 30, 2016).
    • 5. Prashant Kumar Singh, “Transforming India-Taiwan Relations: New Perspectives”, IDSA Monograph Series No. 35, April 2014, pp. 89-97.
    • 6.Inaugural Address of ROC 14th-term President Tsai Ing-wen”, Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan), May 20, 2016 (Accessed May 30, 2016).
    • 7.Taiwan Dreams of an Indian Card”, Public Library of US Diplomacy, WikiLeaks, December 06, 2004 (Accessed May 31, 2016) and “Taiwan Seeking to Counter the PRC in India (C-AL6-00293)”, Public Library of US Diplomacy, WikiLeaks, April 14, 2006 (Accessed May 31, 2016).
    • 8. Since Tsai’s election in January 2016, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) has maintained that there would be no change in China’s Taiwan policy, that is, to promote cross-strait exchanges. However, it has repeatedly reminded President Tsai of the need to clarify her government’s position on the 1992 Consensus, describing it as “a prerequisite for steady cross-strait relations”. For more on this, see Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council PRC. China’s state-run media too has warned Taiwan’s new government in no uncertain terms against harbouring any pro-independence thoughts. See “‘There is Only One China’: Prickly Outburst Tells Taiwan to Abandon Independence ‘Hallucination’ after Tsai Ing-wen Win”, South China Morning Post, January 17, 2016 (Accessed May 30, 2016).