The many winters of Taiwan’s discontent are past; its one-party state days are over. With democracy becoming more firmly rooted, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) government and Taiwanese now face a new and different challenge: fostering, consolidating and preserving nation building.
What allows such focus on nation building? Fortuitously, the many threats to Taiwan, both external and internal, are currently low.
Externally, China will always covet Taiwan for the pragmatic reason that it satisfies its navy’s desire for immediate “blue water” access, and psychologically settling “the Taiwan issue” would legitimize the Chinese government and provide a distraction from more serious internal problems.
However, China’s slowing economy, internal corruption and increasing wealth gap, as well as South China Sea issues, are demanding immediate attention.
Japan will remain on watch; it has passed new laws to prevent any direct encirclement of its nation and will not allow China to overrun Taiwan.
The Philippines poses little threat. It remains in survival mode. Philippine President Duterte is occupied with balancing relations between China and the US and his nation’s position in the South China Sea. If anything, the Philippines could be an economic partner.
Russia, a major regional power, remains on the periphery; it has an international agenda, but is more concerned with watching how to benefit from resolutions between China and the US.
All Taiwan’s neighbors have enough on their plates without setting out to directly challenge or involve Taiwan in matters of immediate consequence.
Even across the Pacific Ocean, the US has its own problems with an erratic president settling in to office.
Externally, it is a good time for Taiwan to focus on nation building.
Internally, Tsai’s administration is in a position of strength.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) not only holds the presidency, but also has control of the Legislative Yuan for the first time.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), now the opposition, faces the immediate challenge of selecting its chairperson in May and five candidates are vying for the position.
How the KMT handles this new found diversity in its ranks will be crucial to its survival.
KMT members of some standing will fearfully recall past spin-offs. The New Party rose up in the 1990s. With a narrow focus on unification with China, it grew temporarily and drew support from the ranks of the deep-blue KMT, but soon frittered down to almost nothing. With too narrow a focus and no control of the KMT coffers, it remains a relic of two decades past and serves as a cautionary political tale.
The People First Party (PFP), led by James Soong (宋楚瑜), had its moment in the sun, but was too dependent on Soong’s leadership: A capable man who knew how to spread wealth, but who proved incapable of developing a new generation of leaders.
Many KMT members followed Soong, but once the shepherd was lost, the flock scattered.
The PFP provides a different cautionary tale for the dwindling KMT enmeshed in electing its new chairperson.
The time is right for Tsai and the DPP to focus on building Taiwan, and they have the New Power Party (NPP) there to egg them on and hold their feet to the fire over much needed reforms.
As the new left wing of Taiwanese politics, the NPP both exhibits the Taiwan-centric strength of the post-1996 generations and replaced the Taiwan Solidarity Union. With its appeal to a growing base of new voters, this party seems destined to grow.
Internal conditions remain ripe for reform and in these optimum conditions the DPP cannot afford window dressing.
Which areas must be focused on? Obviously, the first is the economy.
Every nation faces the challenge of developing a satisfactory economic plan. The DPP must be creative and not only “go south,” but go in any beneficial direction away from China.
A positive sign is that while Chinese tourists have been reduced, the tourism industry has increased overall.
A way must be found to grow Taiwan’s reputation not only in tourism, but in exports and services too.
Taiwan’s economic success is intrinsically linked to pension reform. Burdened with the problem left over from the days of the one-party state, economic growth must be such that it provides a good and balanced pension system for all in the future.
Hard decisions must be made, but the majority of people are behind the reforms.
A separate matter is that of judicial reform and transitional justice.
Having a reliable rule of law will affect all aspects of the nation in addition to the economic — and unfortunately dinosaur judges remain on the docket.
Again, Taiwanese support reforms. On the whole, people are still suspicious of the courts, remains from the one-party state days.
In all such areas, Tsai’s administration is in a good position in its first year in office, but it is also a position where much is expected.
As the first year ends, it is important for Tsai to review personnel and their performance.
Are they up to the job? The development of the strong internal structures that are crucial to a democracy are slowly formed, so personnel involved do not need to worry about fanfare.
Instead, is there progress? The future demands competent people who can handle accountability for their work and are committed to staying the course.
The time is ripe; conditions are favorable. The ball is in the DPP’s court and Taiwanese are watching.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.
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