China is steeling itself for another presidential election in Taiwan, hoping a victory for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) enables even better ties but also girding for an opposition win that, according to some, could inflame tensions.
Beijing has never been comfortable with elections on Taiwan and has warned any attempt to set up an independent “Republic of Taiwan” would end in armed conflict.
Even so, political relations have improved since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Beijing has been more willing to work with Ma than with his predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
“They’re very concerned about this upcoming election,” said Dafydd Fell, senior lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, of Chinese leaders.
“Even when the DPP was at its lowest point, when I was talking to Taiwan people in China, they were still very worried at the prospect of the DPP coming back to power,” he said.
Chen was jailed for corruption after stepping down from power. However, the DPP has bounced back from that scandal and has put up steely, US and British-educated DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to face Ma in January.
Chinese leaders will be hoping desperately that Ma gets back into office and continues a rapprochement that thus far has focused on economic issues but which China will eventually want to cover much harder and more sensitive political matters.
China vented its anger at Washington rather than Taipei after the announcement of US arms sales to Taiwan last month because it understood that rhetoric directed at Taiwan could play into the DPP’s hands and lessen the chances of Ma getting back into office, Beijing-based diplomats say.
The day before Washington unveiled the package, former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) was greeted warmly in Shanghai, home to many Taiwanese companies and about 300,000 Taiwanese expatriates.
Lien lauded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) deal signed last year.
“It is clear to all that this agreement has promoted cross-strait exchanges and Taiwan’s economic development,” the Taiwan Affairs Office quoted Lien as telling Shanghai’s Chinese Communist Party chief Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲).
China will have to tread carefully, however. Previous attempts to influence Taiwan elections have backfired.
In 1996, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) ordered fire missiles tests and war games in the seas around Taiwan to try and intimidate voters not to back then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who China believed was moving Taiwan closer to formal independence.
Lee won by a landslide.
China has made little attempt to hide its suspicions of Tsai.
In May, the People’s Daily accused Tsai of flip-flopping on China policy and still ultimately wanting to push Taiwan’s independence.
Earlier this month in Greater Kaohsiung, Tsai said Taiwan and the Republic of China (ROC) were the same thing, signaling for some a softer line on Taiwan’s status.
She had previously referred to the ROC as an illegitimate, foreign government.
China was not convinced.
“This is obfuscation, a backdoor way of supporting Taiwan independence,” Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Yang Yi (楊毅) said of Tsai’s remarks.
The DPP would not likely rule out contact with China if elected, Tsai campaign manager Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) said, but added: “We don’t expect the Chinese to respond to us positively.”