Analysis: Taiwan Vote Signals Growing Divide With China

In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, William Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan at right meets with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, at left in the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The landslide reelection of Taiwan’s leader underscores the population’s embrace of an identity distinct from China — a shift that the communist leaders of China refuse to accept.

It’s a contradiction that will keep the island of 23 million people at odds with its much larger neighbor for the foreseeable future and put increasing strains on the one-China principle, which holds that Taiwan and China are part of one country.

President Tsai Ing-wen swept to a second four-year term Saturday with 57% of the vote. Her opponent, Han Kuo-yu, tallied 39%. The results soundly rejected the China-friendly views of his Nationalist Party, which has struggled to adapt to the emergence and evolution of a Taiwanese identity.

The question for the next four years is whether the governments on both sides of the 160-kilometer- (100-mile-) wide Taiwan Strait will stay the course or escalate their battle of wills.

China may step up its campaign to try to isolate Taiwan both diplomatically and economically, though it may also be rethinking that approach after efforts to do so during Tsai’s first term only seemed to build support for her at home.

A supporter of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election candidate, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen shows Chinese character “Democracy” on his haircut as supporters gather to watch early election return in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Her big win could embolden some in her Democratic Progressive Party to look for ways to nudge Taiwan toward formal independence from China, the party’s official goal. But even symbolic steps would anger China and could invite retaliation, and Tsai herself has shown no signs of going down that path.

Modern Taiwan is an outgrowth of a civil war between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communists for control of China after World War II. The communists triumphed in 1949, and Chiang’ retreated to Taiwan, where he set up a rival government that he ran with an iron fist while harboring hopes of taking back the entire country from the communists.

That is no longer a realistic goal, and with each passing decade, Chiang’s dream has been replaced by a growing sense that Taiwan is not a part of China, particularly among the younger generations. They see their home as a separate entity with its own democratic ideals and don’t want to be subsumed by China and its ruling Communist Party.

The long-running and at times violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that started last June reinforced that sentiment.

Early in 2019, Chinese leader Xi Jinping proposed talks with Taiwan on joining China under a “one-country, two-systems” framework similar to the one that governs Hong Kong, the former British colony returned to China in 1997.

Most Taiwanese oppose the idea, and Tsai capitalized politically on the Hong Kong protests, saying they illustrate why one-country, two-systems doesn’t work.

Taiwan largely functions as an independent nation, with its own laws, military and foreign minister, though technically it and mainland China belong to one country with rival governments, the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and the Republic of China in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital.

Hong Kong supporters of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election candidate, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen hold slogan as supporters gather to watch the early election returns in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Tsai, though, has refused to endorse that one-China policy and sought to build unofficial ties with the United States, which does not recognize Taiwan but is its main supplier of military equipment to defend itself against China. Signals of support from the Trump administration have given voters confidence in Tsai’s approach of pushing back against China’s threats.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congraulated Tsai in a statement released soon after the election results came out and applauded “her commitment to maintaining cross-Strait stability in the face of unrelenting pressure.”

Lin Fei-fan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s deputy secretary general, said last month that discussion on constitutional change could start in a second Tsai term, such as changing the flag or the definition of the Republic of China’s territory to include just Taiwan, rather than both the island and the mainland.

China, though, has threatened to use military force if needed against what it calls any “secessionist” moves toward independence.

The official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary on the election that China has a full policy toolbox to curb Taiwan independence activities and benefit Taiwanese compatriots.

Tsai, in line with public opinion, focused in her campaign on preserving Taiwan’s democracy rather than any fundamental change to the island’s political status. That approach pleases Dong Yu-hsin, a 23-year-old nonprofit worker.

“Although we can say in hard terms Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China … of course we don’t want a war or anything worse than now,” he said. “I hope Tsai Ing-wen can keep her perspective on autonomy and uphold today’s status quo.”


Like many Taiwanese, he likes things the way they are and doesn’t want to rock the boat with China.


Associated Press writer Ralph Jennings contributed to this report.