In a rare democratic election in the Sinosphere on Saturday, Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party crushed the pro-Beijing Kuomintang in a sweeping victory, claiming the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan.

Tsai’s victory was seen to be bolstered by national outrage at 16-year-old Taiwanese Korean-pop singer Chou Tzu-Yu being forced to issue an “apology” for waving a Taiwanese flag. This heavy-handed response appeared to further galvanise Taiwanese to vote for a party that encourages Taiwan to carve out a separate identity to the mainland.

As such, Tsai’s victory is a major test for cross-strait relations between the island and the Communist Party-run mainland, with the DPP in control of both branches of government for the first time in its history and with clear authority from the Taiwanese people to negotiate with Beijing.

It is a significant change to the balance of power in a region in which Australia is increasingly invested, particularly via the fast-coalescing alliance around the US that includes Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, perhaps Vietnam and arguably Taiwan.

The mainland continues to insist on the fiction of “One China” in which countries like Australia must pretend that Taiwan is not an independent nation with its own institutions, currency and leadership but still part of “China”.

And it was instructive that during the election campaign, with China’s aggressive action in the South China Sea a constant backdrop, that US announced its first arms sales to Taiwan in some years.

“Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected,” Tsai said in her victory speech while promising to maintain the “status quo of peace and stability” with Beijing. “Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations.”

As venerable China-watcher New York University law professor Jerome Cohen wrote in the South China Morning post last week.

“A major question, of course, is whether — if the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate Tsai Ing-wen wins — her administration can manage a smooth transition to the next stage of Taiwan’s relations with mainland China. Taiwan’s quickly evolving identity has yet to be adequately reflected in cross-strait relations, and it is time for intergovernmental relations to catch up with social progress on the island and its new demands.”

It was encouraging that Australia’s government came out almost immediately with congratulations for Tsai, Taiwan’s first female leader noting pointedly in the face of insistence by Communist China that the island remains an errant province.

“The Australian Government congratulates Dr Tsai Ing-wen on her victory in the Taiwan elections on 16 January,” a statement from Julie Bishop said. “Australia will continue to work with Taiwan on an unofficial basis including through our trade and investment ties and our co-operation in science and education. This builds on the close links between the Australian and Taiwanese people.”

The smooth conduct of the elections is a tribute to the strength and maturity of Taiwan’s democracy and to the enthusiastic involvement of the Taiwanese people. This will be Taiwan’s third peaceful transfer of power since becoming a democracy.

It’s worth noting, too, that Tsai is unique in female leaders in Asia in that she has come to power without a family history in politics, as was the case for Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Park Geun-hye, Corazon Aquino et al, and this, as much as anything, shows a particular strength in Taiwan’s democracy. One that, regionally, only New Zealand and Australia can match.

The return of the DPP to power does not sit well with Beijing, which actively loathed the last DPP president Chen Shui-bian, later jailed for corruption and who was more pro-active in his “pro-independence” comments than the more diplomatic Tsai.

The state-run Xinhua news agency wrote:

“If there is no peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s new authority will find the sufferings of the people it wishes to resolve on the economy, livelihood and its youth will be as useless as looking for fish in a tree.”

The twin victories of the DPP and democracy itself in Taiwan come at a particularly important time in what the mainland used to describe as the three Chinas: the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the three years since Xi Jinping was elected to the top spot in the CCP’s hierarchy, Hong Kong’s independence and the reality of the “one country, two systems” formulation — agreed to between China and the United Kingdom for the “handover” of Hong Kong — has threatened instability.

The threat has only escalated in the past 16 months since the month-long Umbrella Movement protests rocked Hong Kong — and Beijing — to its core. In recent weeks booksellers promoting anti-Communist Party literature have been kidnapped by mainland security forces, and a furore has broken out over Beijing-backed interference in Hong Kong’s universities.

The DPP’s victory has ended eight years of often inept government by the pro-mainland Kuomintang, or Nationalist, government of Ma Ying-jeou, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term but whose popularity rating had slumped below 20% in the past 12 months.

Ma’s government was seen as tired and out of ideas, especially by younger voters who have been agitating for change in a country whose population is 24 million, roughly the same as Australia’s. The KMT also had the embarrassment of switching presidential candidates mid-stream with party chairman Eric Chu replacing the original candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, whose ineptitude saw her quickly likened to US Republican Sarah Palin.

Tsai has plenty of work to do domestically to clean up corruption and something of an economic mess left by her predecessor. She will not be formally inducted as president until May, although the new legislature will take its seat in February.

But it will be relations with the mainland which will be, unfairly or not, the focus of the rest of the world — and much lies out of her hands and in those of the increasingly nationalistic Xi Jinping.

Australia has a vested interest in the continued stability in cross-strait relations but not at the expense of the nominal independence of Taiwan. That’s something the Turnbull government should make clear to Beijing.

Peter Fray

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