Incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen will face off the KMT's Han Kuo-yu in January's election. Photos: Central News Agency, AFP

It is far too early to know how the next Taiwan presidential election will play out, but the elections in January are slated to be the most important in nearly a quarter of a century. What makes this election different?

1. Presidential hopefuls hold divergent views over relations with Beijing.

A key point of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election has been the cross-Strait policies that have polarized and shaped Taiwan’s politics for the past two decades. In essence, Taiwan’s presidential hopefuls are grouped into two camps. In one camp is Tsai Ing-wen, the pro-independence candidate seeking a second four-year term. In the other camp is populist Han Kuo-yu, who favors more stable relations with Beijing to advance Taiwan’s economy and improve communications with China.

With presidential hopefuls holding divergent views over the government’s relations with China, Taiwan’s next elections will have a deciding effect on cross-Strait relations over the next four years and beyond. The increasingly precarious geopolitical situation makes high stakes between the incumbent Tsai and the populist Han even more apparent. Han has pledged to support the “1992 Consensus,” an agreement regarded by Beijing as a foundation for interaction with Taiwan and which Tsai is accused of breaking.

2. Polls show that Taiwan independence is a non-issue in the race.

From all opinion polls, we can see that the people have long loathed the fierce fights between the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and between pro-reunification and pro-independence elements. After 20 years of refinement through democratic elections, it shows that Taiwan independence is a non-issue; the problem derives from the fact that now is not the time for a referendum on  independence.

However, the 2020 general election has been manipulated by the Tsai administration as a “war of reunification versus independence.” Looking back at the past two decades, whenever the DPP was in power, it never seriously worked toward Taiwan independence, and while the KMT was in power, it didn’t push for reunification, either. Tsai has never been an “independence element,” while Han is not a “unification element,” either. “Reunification” or “independence” has only been a strategy for manipulation in electoral campaigns. The failure of the DPP’s cross-Strait policies is not due to Beijing’s opposition to Taiwan independence, nor to the KMT’s drive for reunification, but should be attributed to the Tsai government’s incompetence.

3. Terry Gou can still render assistance in removing Tsai from power.

For the last several months, the KMT has squandered precious time and effort in internecine fights, wasting an excellent opportunity. Now, through the righteous move of Terry Gou’s withdrawal from the race, the KMT must seize the opportunity to galvanize solidarity and cooperation. Only by removing Tsai from power can the KMT’s camp re-create the nation’s pride and social harmony. Although Gou has withdrawn, with his experiences and wisdom, he still has much room to move in the battlefield of this campaign. His role may not be at the forefront of the troops, but he must be in the sessions of campaign strategies.

4. China will dominate the election campaign.

In the next elections and the cross-Strait strategic game involving various aspects, who has committed “strategic mistakes” in the election campaign is not yet known; however, the sharp increase in cross-Strait risks is the writing on the wall. China temporarily suspended individual tourism to Taiwan, apparently with strategic considerations. In the trade war with China, US President Donald Trump has not loosened his grasp; US-Taiwan relations have been upgraded, so Beijing believes that the Tsai administration is relying on Washington to inflate her power.

Recent opinion surveys show most Taiwanese oppose rule by China, and incidents in Hong Kong actually are having an effect on youth, and protests against the territory’s own rule by Beijing have solidified that sentiment. Although the Hong Kong matter will make Taiwan people to take precautions against Beijing when they vote for a president, they’ll hope to decide their own lives, and voting will take that direction. Thus China is expected to define the election campaigns because the two contenders differ on how to handle it, reflecting divisions among Taiwanese people. There’s no question that Beijing would prefer to see Han prevail over Tsai.

5. Washington sends mixed signals.

Washington’s rhetoric has been consistent for decades. Many observers believe that the US is deliberately keeping Taiwan apart from China for strategic reasons, but the underlying logic of this policy is simultaneously substantively unconvincing. The confusion deepens thanks to Washington’s long-standing pattern of sending mixed messages to both sides. The tactic of strategic ambiguity is aimed at deterring both Taipei and Beijing from upsetting the status quo across the Strait.

Actually mixed signals from Washington are nothing new, but the signals coming out of the Trump administration are even more perplexing than usual. On the one hand, the US in the Trump era has taken a number of strong actions that work in favor of Taiwan. And there’s the rub: It’s not clear what priority the Trump administration actually places on its friendship with Taipei, relative to relations with Beijing and other considerations. Beyond the mixed messages, there is yet another wind rising in Washington when it comes to the Taiwan election. Over the past year, the center of gravity among Americans has shifted toward a more skeptical view of China.

In conclusion, Han Kuo-yu relied on his fans to achieve a victory in November 2018; now he must open himself up to strengthen the forces dissatisfied with the DPP toward solidarity. Only by doing so can he decisively defeat Tsai.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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