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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Taiwan and China

Naoki Makita

Jan. 15, 2016

In Taiwan's presidential elections, relations with China are always a focal point. The two sides separated in 1949. The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, evacuated to Taiwan after defeat by the Communists in a civil war. Taiwan's relations with the mainland often swing between friendly and strained.

"We are brothers who sharing the same blood," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in 2015. "Let’s take the path that leads to peace and progress by the one China policy.”

"The one China policy will be the foundation for peace and progress on both our shores.” Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said.

When the leaders of China and Taiwan met recently, it was for the first time since the two sides separated more than half a century ago.

In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, took back the government from the Democratic Progressive Party. He campaigned on a promise to improve relations with China, in order to boost Taiwan's economy.

"The people in Taiwan hope for a peaceful relationship with China, as well as for its economic prosperity.” Ma said.

Ma pushed a number of reforms to strengthen ties with China. The two sides agreed to permit regular direct flights between Taiwan and China. And they allowed Chinese people to go on group tours to the island. But some people were opposed to the closer relationship with Beijing.

In 2014, a group of students occupied parliament for almost a month to protest a service trade agreement with China.

"Once they’ve taken control of our economy, the next step will be unification,” a protestor said.

Many young people in Taiwan sympathize with the protesters. How they view the relationship with China could affect the presidential election.

Professor Yasuhiro Matsuda an expert on Taiwan and cross-strait relations from the University of Tokyo joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu live from Taiwan.

Shibuya: Professor Matsuda, thanks for being with us. Opinion polls suggest the opposition Democratic Progressive Party is heading for victory. What's driving their success?

Matsuda: My understanding is that it's not that people are supporting for the DPP strongly but it's more that President Ma Ying-jeou's administration has lost steam. Ma promised to improve people's lives by stabilizing the cross-strait relationship and increasing economic ties with the mainland. But only a limited number of people have benefitted from the policy.

Many people haven't seen their pay go up. But they have seen their gas and utility charges rise and that's been very unpopular. President Ma has hammered out policies to attract Chinese tourists but ironically that's making people in Taiwan more aware that they're Taiwanese, not Chinese. All this has fueled public frustration with Ma's second term in office. The ruling party has also been hampered by internal battles. The Nationalists couldn't field a strong presidential candidate until October when they eventually turned to Eric Chu. I believe that confusion made people even more fed up with the party.

Beppu: What are the focal points of the election?

Matsuda: If things turn out as the polls suggest they will, what's crucial is how Tsai Ing-wen wins. For example, whether she takes more votes than Ma did in 2008. The bigger the win, the more power she would have to unify the electorate and the better placed she will be to negotiate with the mainland. I'll also be keeping my eyes on a parliamentary election taking place the same day where the DPP will be hoping to secure a majority. The Party now has 40 of the 113 seats. DPP has been the relative majority in the past but it's never held a simple majority. If the DPP can do that this time around, it will be able to pass laws and budgets, and press ahead with domestic reforms. The party could also implement policies concerning Taiwanese independence and that might spark problems with the mainland.

The election result could end up testing Taiwan's relations with China, the US and Japan. The two frontrunners have very different views on their island's economic and diplomatic relations.

Tsai visited Washington D.C. in June to emphasize Taiwan's relationship with the United States.

Tsai asked the US Congress to provide Taiwan with military aid.

"We continue to see congressional support for the sale of defense articles," Tsai said.

Her party is viewed as being pro-independence. So she tried to minimize concerns about the tense relationship between Taiwan and China.

"If elected, I will push for peaceful and stable development in cross-strait relations,” Tsai said in a speech.

The ruling Nationalist Party's presidential candidate, Eric Chu, also visited the US. He said that if anyone can maintain stable ties with China, it’s him.

"If the relationship between Taiwan and China stabilizes, there will no doubt be a positive effect on the US’s relations with China and Taiwan,” Chu said.

Tsai later visited Japan.

"The Democratic Progressive Party is seeking opportunities to work with Japan amid structural changes in Taiwan's economy and industries.”

But the Chinese government expressed concerns about her visit.

"I ask that Japan honor the “The one China policy” movement, and not support Taiwan’s assertions of independence,” said Hong Lei, a Chinese Foreign Minister spokesperson.

The new administration will have to balance Taiwan's relationship with China, on one hand, and with the US and Japan on the other.

Beppu: How could this election change Taiwan's relationship with mainland China.

Matsuda: Beijing wants Tsai Ing-wen to recognize the 1992 Consensus that refers to the "One China." But that's virtually impossible. Tsai relies on the support of pro-independence people so recognizing the consensus would be political suicide. The People's Republic of China will mark the 70th anniversary of its foundation in 2019 and two years later will celebrate the centennial of the Communist Party. In the run-up to these occasions, President Xi Jinping's leadership seems keen to avoid any unnecessary rows with Taiwan especially at a time when China's economy is slowing.

Beijing will probably seek unofficial talks with the DPP until Taiwan's new president is sworn in May. And I believe they may try to find wording ambiguous enough for both sides to interpret their way, perhaps by indirectly expressing respect for the 1992 Consensus. But if the behind-the-scenes talks fail, the relations may chill.

Beppu: Is the election likely to have any broader regional impact?

Matsuda: China's relations with its neighbors are strained because of the issues in the South China Sea. If the DPP takes power Beijing could find itself struggling even more with regional diplomacy. And with the US presidential election coming up in November, I think both Beijing and Taipei will exercise self-restraint to ensure that they won't be seen as the "troublemaker" by whoever succeeds Barack Obama. So, I don't think there's a crisis on the horizon. We need to see what approach the next US administration takes in its Asia-Pacific policies.

If the Democratic Progressive Party wins and that destabilize cross-strait relations, we may see some changes in policies. Taiwan could seek stronger ties with the US and Japan. It could look to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership or sign a free trade agreement with Japan. It may also ask Japan to play a greater role on the security front. So Japan will need to perform a balancing act, building relations with Taiwan, but maintaining stable ties with Beijing too.