TAIWAN GOES TO the polls on January 11 to elect a president and legislature after a campaign in which China’s social media influence and what the protests in Hong Kong might foreshadow for the island have taken the spotlight.
President Tsai Ing-wen looks set for re-election, her China-sceptic stance aligning well with the two dominant issues of the campaign. Since the protests in Hong Kong have begun, her poll numbers have risen as those for the pro-China opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu have fallen.
Her victory would do little to ease cross-Strait tensions. However, Beijing will likely restrict itself to political bluster over reunification and military posturing, such as further aircraft carrier group passages through the Taiwan Strait, at least until the endgame in Hong Kong becomes clear.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s international diplomatic standing will continue to erode and its economy will struggle to escape its long-term sluggishness.
The wild card is the US-China relationship.
As part of its confrontation with Beijing, the Trump administration has been more supportive of Taipei than its immediate predecessors. The newly elected US president controversially took a congratulatory call from Tsai in December 2016, throwing into doubt US commitment to the ‘One China’ policy it has pursued since 1979. More recently, he approved sales to Taiwan of US military equipment including critical fighter jets, and by starting to draw it into US-led regional security arrangements.
Closer alignment with Washington is a two-edged sword. It will leave a re-elected Tsai hostage to the state of US-China relations, relations that under Trump, who faces his re-election in November, will continue to be unpredictable.