Entangled US-China-Taiwan relations likely just got more complicated after President Tsai Ing-wen’s big re-election victory

Sarah Zheng

Taiwan may face retaliation and increased pressure from Beijing after President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide re-election victory, adding uncertainty to the already tense relationship between China and the United States, analysts said.

Tsai, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won a record-breaking 8.2 million votes, or 57 per cent of the total, in Taiwan’s election on Saturday against 5.5 million votes for her main opponent, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, in what was widely seen as an endorsement of the Tsai administration’s tough stance against Beijing.

Observers said Beijing was likely to further squeeze Taiwan – a self-ruled island that it claims as part of its territory – in the international space, complicating its intensifying strategic rivalry with Washington.

While strong US support of Taiwan under Tsai would be expected to continue amid heightened tensions with China, the triangular relationships would also hinge upon the outcome of the US presidential election in November and progress in trade talks between Beijing and Washington, analysts said.

Jonathan Sullivan, a Taiwan expert at the University of Nottingham, said that neither China nor the US wanted a conflict over Taiwan, but that there were unknowns including US President Donald Trump’s volatility and his re-election bid, as well as how the major powers would manage the two nations’ deteriorating relationship.

“In general terms, neither side wants a confrontation over Taiwan, and certainly the US is thankful that Tsai has not rocked the boat, a careful posture I expect her to continue,” he said. “The wild card is Beijing, which has painted itself into a corner with regards to Taiwan. There just isn’t room for them to concede the bit of space Tsai needs to start talking again.”

Relations between Taipei and Beijing froze under Tsai’s government, with formal exchanges between the governments suspended over her refusal to accept the 1992 consensus – the political understanding that there is “one China” – that Beijing has made a prerequisite for talks.

Sullivan said Beijing would likely manage its impatience “as long as the US does not do something dramatic with regards to Taiwan, and as long as the China-US bilateral [relationship] is still salvageable”.

The US does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taipei, but considers the island to be a key partner in the Indo-Pacific. Trump abandoned decades of protocol when he spoke to Tsai by phone in December 2016, a month after he was elected but before he took office, and his administration has supported Taiwan through arms sales and high-level exchanges.

New shine on US-Taiwan ties with trip by top Pentagon brass

In a statement on Saturday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Tsai on her victory and praised Taiwan for “demonstrating the strength of its robust democratic system”.

He added: “The American people and the people of Taiwan are not just partners – we are members of the same community of democracies, bonded by our shared political, economic and international values. We cherish our constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, nurture private sector-led growth and entrepreneurship, and work to be positive forces in the international community.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Taiwan for “demonstrating the strength of its robust democratic system”. Photo: EPA-EFE

In response, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu thanked Pompeo for recognising the “strength of the Taiwan-US partnership”, adding: “We’re excited to be working even closer with you going forward.”

Wu said on Thursday that if Tsai was re-elected, it would give her a mandate to continue her administration’s approach to work closely with the US and stand up to Beijing’s threats against Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Timothy Rich, an expert in Taiwan politics and cross-strait relations at Western Kentucky University, said he expected China to retaliate after the election results, possibly by seeking to convince Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies to switch their official ties to Beijing. But he also anticipated a “greater push” in the US to support Taiwan, particularly in light of China-US tensions.

“China is unlikely to change directions on Taiwan, but I could certainly see China trying to drive a wedge between the US and Taiwan, perhaps first through minor concessions on trade policy for example,” he said. “I doubt Chinese officials will change direction and realise that trying to pressure Tsai simply leads Taiwanese voters towards the DPP, just as it did in the past.”

For Taiwan’s voters, election is about more than Beijing and Washington

In the wake of Tsai’s overwhelming victory and the DPP winning the majority in the legislature over the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), analysts say Beijing may increase its military intimidation of Taiwan in Tsai’s second term, despite knowing such tactics would draw Taiwan closer to the US.

“For Beijing, upgrading its existing cross-strait measures is enough to deal with Tsai, but its biggest headache is over how to deal with Trump, who has continued to challenge China’s red lines by providing active diplomatic and military support to Taipei,” said Shi Yinhong, a prominent international relations scholar from Renmin University and a top adviser to Beijing’s cabinet, the State Council.

“The most difficult problem for Beijing is that the Trump administration will include Taiwan in its Indo-Pacific strategy and let Taiwan reap the benefits from the ongoing competition between Beijing and Washington.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen celebrates her landslide victory in Taipei on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Lin Ying-yu, assistant professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, also said Beijing might employ military intimidation tactics, such as flying Chinese aircraft around the island, as it had in the past.

He said that while cross-strait relations would likely deteriorate further in Tsai’s second term, there was some room for Beijing to tweak its policy given its evident failure to improve China’s image with the Taiwanese public.

“Beijing will need to think about whether there should be a resumption of some interactions at an official level of Taiwan, since while exchanges were frozen, more people in Taiwan developed this sense of ‘national doom’,” Lin said.

Regarding the US-China-Taiwan entanglement of relations, he said it was built upon interactions between Beijing and Washington, which would depend in the near-term on trade talks next week and the US election in November.

“For Taiwan, if both sides think of you as a bargaining chip, then that means that they both think you have value, which is good for us,” he said.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan

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