By Kelvin Green II
The leader of Taiwan’s political party that favors independence from China made history today when she took office as the island’s first woman president.
China is hoping the history-making stops there.
Unlike the Kuomintang party, which has ruled Taiwan for most of the past half-century, President Tsai Ing-wen’s Domestic Progressive Party (DPP) stands for Taiwanese independence from China.
The DPP has held the presidency once before, from 2000 to 2008, but this is the first time it has also controlled the legislature, marking a major political change.
In a landslide victory coinciding with the presidential poll in January, the DPP won of 68 of the 113 seats in parliament, the Legislative Yuan, enabling it to govern alone. The Kuomintang (KMT), which believes in eventual reunification with China under non-communist rule, won only 35 seats and lost its parliamentary majority for the first time.
The question taxing diplomats, human rights activists and others is how far the DPP and President Tsai are prepared to push the independence agenda.
Taiwan’s politics reflect a generational divide.
In her inauguration remarks on Friday, Tsai urged China to “drop the baggage of history” in an otherwise conciliatory speech. She said Taiwan would play a responsible role and be a “staunch guardian of peace” in its relationship with China.
Besides January’s election landslide, the pro-independence camp can point to an opinion poll carried out earlier this year by the Taiwan Braintrust think tank that showed that nearly 90 percent of the population identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Such feelings have been growing since at least 2014 when students launched the “Sunflower Movement” to protest against a major trade agreement with China, signed the previous year by the former KMT administration.
Student protesters said they had not been consulted on the trade agreement, which would liberalize trade in a range of service industries but which ran counter to public opinion. The agreement has not been ratified.
Despite its ideological conflict with the government in Beijing, the KMT believes in stronger economic ties between the island of Taiwan and the mainland, in line with its “One China” policy.
The political differences reflect a generational divide. While DPP supporters are mostly young, the KMT draws its support from older citizens who were alive when the party retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong.
A formal bid for independence by the DPP would, however, be fraught with risk.
A bid for independence could hurt Asia’s fifth largest economy.
First and foremost, it could dangerously increase tensions between China and the United States, Taiwan’s chief ally and supplier of arms and military materiel to defend itself from invasion.
Second, it is far from clear that Taiwan would have any diplomatic support. Beijing holds China’s seat at the United Nations and one of the five permanent places on the U.N. Security Council. It argues that Taiwan is Chinese territory and could block any attempt to endorse the island’s self-determination in international law.
In any case, Taiwan is already self-governing. It organizes its own elections, chooses its own parliament and government, and makes economic agreements under the 1992 Consensus between China and the United States.
This agreement, which is backed by the KMT, has helped Taiwan develop into the fifth largest economy in Asia. But it is an economy that currently is sputtering, and its biggest trading partner is … China.
It remains to be seen how the Taiwanese people and their new president will calculate the risks as they consider the prospect of independence.
Kelvin Green II is a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in the United States, who is spending his second-to-last year of high school at the School Year Abroad China program. A passionate writer who is interested in social justice, Green said that during his year in Beijing, immersion in Chinese culture and Mandarin fluency have greatly influenced his worldview.