In a democracy, two resounding election defeats in a matter of months might prompt some soul searching in the losing camp.
In China, however, a snub at the polls in places it claims is more a minor setback rather than a sign of a flawed strategy. President Xi Jinping’s government showed that yet again in the wake of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s landside win, which came shortly after Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces gave Beijing a black eye in a November election.
“This temporary counter-current is just a bubble under the tide of the times,” the official state-run Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary after Tsai’s win. Blaming “anti-China political forces in the West” and calling the election a “fluke,” it warned that “reunification cannot be stopped by any force or anyone.”
China’s response signals it would maintain a hard line during Tsai’s second term, using its clout as the world’s second-biggest economy to lure Taipei’s 15 remaining formal diplomatic partners and offer further incentives to Taiwanese businesses. It could also flex its increasing military strength by stepping up air force and naval patrols around the island.
But just as China’s uncompromising approach in Hong Kong has strengthened the city’s pro-democracy forces, so far its tough approach to Taiwan has only reduced support for its stated goal of unification. Tsai saw her poll numbers surge after her vocal backing of Hong Kong’s protests, which have widespread support in Taiwan.
“I doubt that Beijing will reflect on the meaning of President Tsai’s victory, but will double down on the coercive policies it deployed during her first term,” said Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former head of the American Institute in Taiwan. “Beijing sees the Trump administration, and not President Tsai, as the more dangerous variable here. It will push back harder against US initiatives to help Taiwan.”
The election victory by Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party amounted to its fourth win over Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition in six elections since 2000. She secured 57% of the vote, compared with 39% for Han Kuo-yu, whose Kuomintang party oversaw a historic expansion of cross-strait economic ties in the 1990s. Her party also held onto its majority in the legislature, albeit with a reduced margin.
In her first public appearances after the win, Tsai signalled she was bracing for Beijing’s wrath by meeting local envoys from China’s biggest rivals, the US and Japan. While it’s extremely unlikely Tsai would assert the island’s formal independence, a move that could trigger war, she has angered Beijing by refusing to accept the belief that both sides are part of “one China.”
Any resolution of Taiwan’s status risks bringing China into a direct military conflict with the US, the island’s main ally and arms supplier. Support for Taipei has surged in Washington since President Donald Trump held an unprecedented phone call with Tsai, dubbed China a “strategic competitor” and launched a bruising trade war against Xi’s government.