By Geoff Raby
Published on 13 January 2020 on Australian Financial Review
At a time of unmitigated gloom in international affairs, Saturday’s re-election of Tsai Ing-wen for a second term as Taiwan’s leader is a particularly bright spot. Not only did she defeat the more China-friendly KMT leader, but the election was conducted in a civilised and orderly manner. The strength of and confidence in Taiwan’s still relatively young democratic institutions were on full display. The prospect of re-unification has just receded much further into the distant future.
Beijing could hardly have been surprised by the result. After trailing in the polls for the past two years, her approval rating began to rise inexorably from September. She went into the election with a healthy lead in the polls, winning the election by around 20 per cent.
Many domestic issues, of course, featured prominently in the election. These are common across the developed world – slow economic growth, increasing income inequality, inadequate public investment in social services and infrastructure. Similarly are weak productivity growth and an ageing population.
Against the background of the unexpected Hong Kong protests, mass civil disobedience and at times nihilist anarchy, the election on this occasion became more than previously one about Taiwan’s future relations with mainland China.
Although the Chinese state-run media and nationalist tabloids such as the Global Times are indignantly railing against US influence in the election, no one in Beijing could have been surprised that Hong Kong would come to dominate the election. It became a quasi-referendum on Taiwan’s future relationship with the mainland.
Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”, which critically includes re-unification by the centenary of the founding of the PRC in 2049, has slipped further from his reach. Re-unification was to be his chief legacy, confirming his leading position after Mao in the pantheon of China’s modern-day rulers.
Foreign commentators are likely to conclude that Tsai’s election has just made the region a much more dangerous place. The implication is that Xi is left with no other option, but military force and it is assumed, therefore, that the US would have no other choice but to intervene militarily on Taiwan’s behalf.
Neither is necessarily correct, nor should they form the basis of Australia’s policymaking. The events of Hong Kong over the past year will have shown even the most obdurate policymakers in Beijing that a generation has grown up in both Hong Kong and Taiwan who simply do not identify with mainland China in the way their parents and grandparents once did.
To that extent, the game is up for Beijing. No amount of military force is going to turn this generation and the next into compliant subjects of Beijing.
The fact that Beijing exercised maximum constraint during what it would have conceived as the “Crisis of Hong Kong” shows it understands the limits to the use of force, and the impracticality of a garrisoned Hong Kong, let alone Taiwan. The Communist Party is capable of making super big mistakes, as it did with June 4, 1989, but it is also good at learning from its mistakes. It is part of its Marxist dialectic genetic make-up.
Tsai’s rhetorical position, at least, on relations with the Mainland offers a practical alternative to conflict. As a realist she recognises that a declaration of independence from the Mainland would, short of war, entail such horrendous costs that it is out of the question. It too is not going to happen.
She speaks, instead, not about sovereignty but of respect for Taiwan’s “identity”. If Beijing was blind to the importance of identity, or complacently assumed that the peoples of Hong Kong and Taiwan at heart really identified with the Mainland, then the violence on the streets of prosperous law-abiding Hong Kong put paid to that. The message for Beijing from the vote on Saturday was one of identity not sovereignty.
Therein lies the basis for an eventual diplomatic basis for stable relations between Beijing and Taipei and one which is still consistent with the One Country, Two Systems formula.
Beijing is a master of the art of strategic patience in a way few other countries are. Its immediate priority is Hong Kong as a timetable exists for its full integration into the Mainland under the basic law. Unlike Taiwan, the people of Hong Kong have no choice.
Beijing will now set about changing over time how people identify themselves. The two main priorities will be patriotic education and eroding the integrity of the rule of law. This has already begun.
In all of this conflict is the least likely outcome, even if strong rhetoric and posturing at times may suggest otherwise.
The assumption that the US would intervene militarily on behalf of Taiwan also needs to be challenged firmly by Australian policymakers. Ten years ago, it may have been reasonable to assume that short of a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan provoking a military response by China, the US would intervene to protect its regional hegemony and reassure allies.
Today, the US has already ceded considerable strategic space to China in East Asia; the US public have lost their appetite for foreign wars; China’s military modernisation has massively raised to the cost of conflict; and there would seem to be no scenarios under which the US could prevail in a conflict close to China’s shores.
Peace across the Straits will be maintained by the impracticality and costs of occupying and subjugating a people that now have a strong sense of Taiwanese identity. Sunday’s election has confirmed that.
Finally, another outcome from the election which should be noted in Australia is that despite all the assertions about unprecedented efforts by Beijing to influence the election using every devious trick from old fashioned bribery to sophisticated social media trolling – all of which is most likely true – it was an abject failure. Australia’ China Threat industry take note.