Taiwan Elections Could Create Heightened Tensions in the Asia-Pacific

The election victory in Taiwan of the independence-minded presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, Lai Ching-te, threatens to add to the growing tensions with Beijing. However, Lai only received a little over 40% of the votes, with over 33% going to the KMT (Kuomintang) candidate and 26% to the Taiwan People’s Party candidate, neither of whom are interested in Taiwan independence. The new President will have a difficult time passing legislation, since in the parliamentary elections that also took place on Jan. 13, the DPP lost ten seats, giving the KMT a majority of one (52 KMT, 51 DPP, 8 TPP and 2 unaffiliated). Hence, the new president will be working with a parliament that is divided, and generally hostile to any moves toward independence. While Lai has made statements saying that the position of Taiwan will not change after a DPP victory and that he backs the status quo, the danger may lie more with the measures taken by the “outside forces” — namely the United States and Japan.

One day before the elections, China’s PLA had issued a statement to the effect that they would “smash” any attempt at independence for Taiwan. The next day the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, focused more on the statement made by the U.S. State Department after the results were announced, which affirmed a commitment to “further our longstanding unofficial relationship, consistent with the U.S. one China policy as guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances”. The Taiwan Relations Act and “the Six Assurances” were agreements made solely between the U.S. and Taiwan, in which China had no part. In fact, the Chinese leadership views these documents as attempts to undercut the three Joint Communiques signed with the People’s Republic of China, which is what they were.

In any case, Washington immediately sent sent a delegation consisting of two former U.S. officials, Stephen Hadley and James Steinberg, to Taipei for consultations, While neither is a high-level official, which would have set off a firestorm, the symbolism was not lost on China. A Japanese delegation also arrived in Taipei the day after the vote.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking in Cairo on Jan. 14 at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart, made it a point to address the issue personally. He emphasized that Taiwan has never been a country and never will be in the future. “Anyone on the island of Taiwan who wants to pursue ‘Taiwan independence’ to split China’s territory will be severely punished by history and law,” he said. In addition, he noted that anyone who “violates the one-China principle in the international community is interfering in China’s internal affairs and infringing on China’s sovereignty, and will surely be opposed by the entire Chinese people and even the international community.”

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