Sunday, June 5, 2016

Taiwan’s first female President, Tsai Ying Wen

In a historic moment, Taiwan’s first female President, Tsai Ying Wen took oath of office on May 20, 2016 in the presence of 700 dignitaries from 59 countries. Her party coming to power with an overwhelming majority and most importantly the position of DPP in the Legislative Yuan can lead to a number of changes in Taiwan’s domestic politics. Taiwan’s domestic politics is intricately tied up with its relationship with Mainland China thus influencing it heavily. The result of the recent Taiwanese elections gives two clear indicators as to why Tsai Ying Wen was elected — first of all, the Taiwanese people want economic improvement and secondly, public opinion rejects the close relations between Taiwan and Mainland China during Kuomintang (KMT) rule. The KMT promised growth in the economy and peace if they had healthy cross strait relations. With the economy crawling at 2 per cent, citizens showed their anger over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China, resulting in the ‘Sunflower Movement’.

Already low in popularity, the KMT was hit again by the history textbook controversy. In both cases there was a strong message that local Taiwanese were not happy with the KMT government’s policy and that most people strongly identified as Taiwanese and not Chinese. The people of Taiwan were more scared after what happened in Hong Kong where pro democracy supporters were assaulted in June and September 2014 and the idea of ‘one country, two systems’ fading away in Hong Kong. Students in Taiwan supported protests in Hong Kong and realized the same could be their fate if integrated with the Mainland. Taiwanese respect their democracy and Tsai in her campaign and inaugural speech stressed on the same.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has 68 seats in a 113-seat legislature for the first time, while the KMT has 35 seats, the new, youth oriented New Power Party (NPP) has five seats, and the People First Party three seats and independents hold two seats. For the first time DPP has a clear majority in the Legislative Yuan which means it can pass the cross-strait agreement oversight legislation which was a major demand of the Sunflower Movement. This agreement requires that decisions like CSSTA should have public inputs. This is one of the major changes that the DPP promised during its election campaign.

Even in her inaugural address, Tsai emphasized on the participation of the Taiwanese people to enable the country to move ahead and she also laid stress on the involvement of indigenous people (recognizing those who first settled on the island). Even at her Inauguration Ceremony, before the national anthem, the indigenous children sang the traditional melodies of their tribe. She promised that her administration “will work to rebuild an indigenous historical perspective, progressively promote indigenous autonomous governance, restore indigenous languages and cultures, and improve the livelihood of indigenous communities”.

The major challenge that the Tsai Government faces is the dipping economy with exports down to USD 285 billion in 2015, from USD 320 billion in 2014. Taiwanese wages have not increased since 2008, economic growth was less than 1 per cent last year and youth unemployment is rising. The other challenge is its dependence on Mainland China with an estimated USD1.3 billion in Taiwanese investment in Chinese manufacturing. The DPP realizes that one way to increase Taiwan’s international market is through membership in international trade and regulatory agreements. It has been eyeing the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Taiwan’s relationship with the U.S. could come to Taiwan’s aid.

Even though the U.S. Presidential elections are round the corner, it will not change the fundamental equation between the two countries. As the U.S. has a Taiwan Nation Act, whether the Republican or Democratic Party wins, the change in the U.S.-Taiwan Relations will remain almost the same. Though Taiwan likes a Republican government in the U.S., but during the missile crisis, the Clinton government sent help to Taiwan. The recent USD 1.83-billion arms sale package for Taiwan by the U.S. in December 2015, including two frigates, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and other equipment, is a clear indication of their support to Taiwan.

The problem however, remains that China can arm twist many countries to block Taiwan from major organizations, which again brings one to the major question of; what will be the current status of cross strait relations. Even during her campaign Tsai never cleared her stance on the ‘1992 consensus’, which agrees on the One China principle. During her inaugural address she maintained to keep healthy cross strait relations and Taiwan will be a staunch supporter of peace. However, Beijing is not happy and their Taiwan office has clearly stated that they want a clear acceptance of the ‘one China’ principle from the DPP. Even before the elections China had put a lot of pressure on DPP to clarify its stance on the ‘1992 consensus’. This could be a major glitch in Taiwan’s plans regarding domestic and international politics.

Recent events wherein a Taiwanese pop star was forced to apologize by her South Korean company after flashing Taiwanese flag, eight Taiwanese were deported to China from Kenya instead of their home country and were paraded on the national T.V. apologizing for crimes they had already been acquitted for in Kenya. China is using these incidents to put pressure on the DPP government to accept ‘One China’ policy.

Taiwan has announced its new ‘New Southbound Policy’ under which Taiwan wants to develop closer ties with ASEAN and India. But, even India downgraded its official representatives for Tsai’s oath ceremony seen as a measure to appease China. Taiwan needs India to make its ‘New Southbound Policy’ successful and diversify its trade and investment. India also needs Taiwan to push its ‘Act East Policy’ and further it’s strategic against China in East Asia. Taiwan could help India in its new programs like ‘Make in India’ and developing ‘smart cities’ as Taiwan has one of the best hardware products and India is famous for its software and marrying both the products would be beneficial for both countries. Although the Indian government is insisting that this will not jeopardize India-Taiwan relations it does send a clear message to Taiwan – India will not displease China for Taiwan.

Tsai’s ‘New Southbound Policy’ could suffer majorly if India keeps backtracking in its commitments to Taiwan because of China and India could lose a major strategic partner in East Asia. Taiwan is already approaching Japan and the US and India should not lose this opportunity to join the strategic vision in East Asia. India should not let appeasing China dictate its foreign policy and on Tsai’s part she needs to tackle this issue very delicately in order to develop Taiwan’s international standing. The US supports Taiwan but even the US does not want cross-strait tensions flaring up.

Along with this Tsai also needs to handle other domestic issues like the pension system, education system, low salaries including boosting jobs for school and university graduates, and developing Taiwan’s traditionally poorer southern regions. Premier Lin Chua already said in May before taking over as the Premier that his government would focus on the three main goals of innovation, employment and distribution, with an emphasis on sustainable development. Tsai has also promised generational justice (younger people loosing hope for future with no jobs not due to lack of ability but due to non existent government structures and help) to Taiwanese and she has her work cut out when it comes to implementing changes in Taiwanese society. She promised many changes that will affect Taiwanese politics; she proposed that the speaker of the Legislative Yuan should be neutral. The handling of legislative affairs can only be neutral if the speaker is neutral which should be guarantee that must be made by the system.

As far as Taiwan’s domestic politics is considered the clear mandate given by Taiwanese to DPP itself is a change. People wanted change in Taiwan, they wanted a leader who could improve their economy, old-age security and stability. The younger generation wanted a leader who would preserve their Taiwanese identity along with a booming economy. Tsai promised all this, which paved the way for a major change in Taiwan’s politics. However, Tsai is walking a tightrope, in terms of balancing domestic aspirations, as well as appeasing not only pro-independence factions within her own party, but the bigger worry of balancing mainland China. Her initial focus could be on passing Indigenous Land bill and same sex marriage with support from the NPP, which stands for these already and her election, can be seen as pro Taiwan rather than Anti-China.

*Namrata Hasija is an Independent Researcher working on issues related East and South East Asia.


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