China has forgone blustery warnings and war games in the run-up to Taiwan’s presidential election this weekend, and will likely take a measured response even if the independence-leaning opposition unseats President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
It is no secret that Beijing prefers another four years for the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Ma, who has pursued closer economic ties since he was elected in 2008, over Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
However, China has avoided rhetoric or military maneuvers ahead of the latest election after previous attempts to influence the outcome backfired spectacularly.
“We are prepared for either scenario. There won’t be a big difference whoever wins,” a source familiar with China’s policy toward Taiwan said, requesting anonymity to avoid political repercussions.
“If Tsai Ing-wen wins, the mainland will ‘listen to her words and watch her deeds’ in the beginning,” a second source with ties to the top Chinese leadership said, also asking not to be identified.
The race is rich in historical irony given Ma’s KMT lost the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 and fled to Taiwan.
Beijing ousted Taipei from the UN in 1971 and for years courted allies to switch recognition. With Ma in office, China has stopped this diplomatic poaching and Taiwan’s allies now stand at 23.
Both sources declined to speculate if China would resume the diplomatic tug-of-war if Tsai eked out a victory.
In 1996, China fired missiles into waters off Taiwan ahead of the island’s first direct presidential election and Chinese media tarred then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) as “a schemer who should be swept onto the rubbish heap of history.”
Lee won by a landslide.
Four years later, China’s then-premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基), wagging his finger in a televised news conference, warned Taiwan’s voters against electing the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), saying Chinese were ready to “shed blood” to prevent Taiwan breaking away and Taiwan would “not get another opportunity to regret.”
Unbowed, Taiwanese voters handed Chen a narrow victory.
In the latest contest, China’s leaders have collectively held their tongues.
In his New Year speech aired live on China’s state television, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) pledged to “continue promoting peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which implements policy toward Taiwan, has tiptoed around sensitive questions about the election.
Still, Beijing is not taking any chances. Chinese and Taiwan airlines have offered the estimated 1 million Taiwanese working or living in China discounted plane tickets home in the first half of this month to vote as that slice of the electorate is perceived to mainly favor Ma.
Ma has declared there will be “no unification, no independence and no war” with China during his watch, while Tsai has also offered olive branches to China and signaled a willingness to negotiate. She has pledged not to scrap the trade agreement inked by Ma.
In theory, a Tsai victory could mean renewed tensions across the Taiwan Strait, but a more confident China just may decide to respond to her peace overtures.
The US, Taiwan’s main arms supplier, also is closely watching the contest.
“The United States would like to see the status quo — Taiwan neither moving too close, too fast to the mainland nor towards independence,” said Lin Chong-pin (林中斌), a professor of the graduate institute of international affairs and strategic studies at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.