In this year’s US presidential election, an issue has arisen about whether allies such as Japan, South Korea and European countries in NATO are spending enough for their defense. Even if Taiwan is not the main subject in this discourse, it has long faced the scrutiny of whether it is sufficiently investing in its self-defense.
Taiwan has a more precarious position than countries such as Israel, which also faces an existential threat. Taipei is sometimes blamed for “provoking” tension, though Beijing is in fact the belligerent bully. Taiwan depends on self-defense and support from the US and other countries for deterrence and defense against threats of coercion as well as force from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Taiwan recently experienced its third peaceful transfer of power — both the presidency and the legislature — with China provoking a minimum of cross-strait tension. President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) strategic challenge is to reverse the decline in Taiwan’s defense and urgently strengthen security in the interest of stability. She can lead Taiwan out of complacency about China’s threat.
With another chance for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to lead the nation, the Tsai administration is aware of its responsibility to fulfill its commitment to Taiwan’s security. However, the DPP’s stress on self-sufficiency in defense can be unrealistic and even counter-productive. Ironically, the foreign country with the most interest in Taiwan’s strong defense and deterrence, the US, is the country that bears some responsibility for pushing Taiwan to this quest for self-sufficiency. US policy also needs an urgent fix, given the hold on arms sales to Taiwan under the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
IMPLICATIONS OF TAIWAN’S ELECTIONS
Contrary to pessimistic perspectives, Taiwan’s democracy underwent a peaceful transition of executive and legislative power following the January elections and May inauguration. The DPP has accepted the “status quo” under the rubric of the Republic of China (ROC). In her inaugural address, Tsai recognized the reality that Taiwanese elected her as “President in accordance with the Constitution of the ROC.” She respects the reality that both sides of the Taiwan Strait have a legacy of more than 20 years of engagement that has enabled positive outcomes for both sides.
China criticized her for not using the the controversial term “1992 consensus.” But significantly, Tsai affirmed the “political foundations” of cross-strait ties, including the 1992 talks. Tsai’s careful remarks reflect her personal control of Taipei’s policy and its communication with Beijing. Indeed, she inherited a recently-revealed tradition of secret communication channels across the Taiwan Strait (Arthur Waldron’s “How secret were Washington’s talks with China?,” Taipei Times, July 21, 2016.)
However, the DPP’s historic victory in the presidential and legislative elections raises an issue of whether a fundamental change has occurred in Taiwan’s politics. China blames the DPP for changing the status quo related to the “one China” ideology since Tsai took office on May 20. Indeed, there has been a fundamental transformation. However, the shift is not what China blames on the DPP. It only recently regained power.
The decades-long trend of greater Taiwan-centric identity, especially among younger voters, grew through the previous two terms of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule under Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Outwardly, China repeats its archaic anti-DPP bashing. Behind this outmoded facade, China is actually afraid of populist movements and democracy, which the regime in Beijing cannot accept or control. Specifically, China is more fearful of the meaning of the 2014 Sunflower movement, which blossomed under Ma’s watch. As a result, people decisively voted against the KMT in local elections in November 2014, before its devastating defeat in January of this year.