The Taiwan card

The huge gains for the opposition Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party, in Taiwan’s local elections may help in gradually improving the island’s ties with mainland China. Equally, the adverse results in some of its strongholds could complicate matters for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party government ahead of the 2020 general elections. President Tsai Ing-wen has stepped down as the party chief, owning moral responsibility for the setback; her re-election bid is in doubt. The pro-independence stance of the DPP is at variance with Beijing’s repeated assertion of its sovereignty over Taiwan, which it insists it is prepared to defend through the use of force. All the same, the Taiwanese government has been equally concerned to not allow the long-standing dispute to escalate to a point of jeopardising the strong trade relations between the two territories. But this delicate balance has turned somewhat more precarious since Donald Trump became President of the United States. Ever since his election, he has sought to leverage Taiwan to pressure China in the U.S.’s ongoing trade war. A first indication was the congratulatory call he received from Ms. Tsai on his poll victory. The episode raised concerns over the status of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, established in 1979, and the consequent downgrading of the U.S.’s ties with Taipei to unofficial exchanges. The 2018 Taiwan Travel Act aims to promote greater engagement between Washington and Taipei. Similarly, the new headquarters of the American Institute in Taiwan in Taipei is symbolic of the shift. The Taiwanese President’s recent visits to the U.S. and interactions with several Congressmen have predictably angered Beijing. Meanwhile, frictions between the two neighbours have also increased. Taipei has alleged that the recent mayoral elections were marred by Beijing’s meddling, with money funnelled illegally to fund opposition campaigns. Business corporations have come under pressure to take down references to Taiwan as a separate entity. Beijing is believed to be applying overt and covert pressure to stop countries from according diplomatic recognition to Taipei. In an echo of China’s increasing economic clout among developing countries, a number of African and Central American states have withdrawn formal ties with Taipei and established links with Beijing since Ms. Tsai became President. In a referendum coinciding with the polls, the people rejected a proposal to rename the country’s Olympic team as Taiwan, instead of the current Chinese Taipei. The verdict is an indication of the limited support for independence and a greater preference to maintain the status quo . Taiwan stands to gain by staying clear of big power rivalries.

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