The Guardian view on China and Taiwan: keep calm and carry on | Editorial

Two states plus one China is a sum which always needs to be handled with care. After recent elections on the island put Beijing’s nose out of joint, caution is required on both sides

China has responded to the election of a new Taiwanese president by flooding its Facebook page with hostile messages and broadcasting pictures of military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. True, president-elect Tsai Ing-wen can hardly have been expecting bouquets. Her Democratic Progressive party (DPP) is, in the careful euphemism usually employed, “independence leaning”, but no qualification of the word “independence” is, in the case of Taiwan, satisfactory to the People’s Republic of China. The Facebook messages are supposedly from concerned individual citizens, and the pictures of naval manoeuvres just another piece of news. But in truth they are a piece of calculated, although deniable, rudeness by Beijing. The cool-headed Ms Tsai will not take them too seriously, but they do not bode particularly well for the future.

Today’s China is not only economically over-extended, as its stock markets have been demonstrating in recent days. It is also politically over-extended, with its island-building in the South China Sea further alienating its neighbours, its heavy hand in supposedly autonomous Hong Kong increasingly apparent, and its attempts to advance the objective of “one China” in disarray after the party it favours in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT), was roundly defeated in both presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this month.

Chinese president Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 with the ambition of solving the Taiwan “problem” – by eventually incorporating the island into China – during his time in office. But although he and the previous Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, greatly expanded the economic relationship, the results were not what either had expected. Most Taiwanese were not grateful, felt any benefits had gone to corporations rather than to ordinary people, and were anxious about the political implications of the new economic links, as the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature in spring 2014 showed. If the meeting between Ma and Xi in late 2015 in Singapore, historic in the sense that it was the first between communist and nationalist leaders since 1949, was intended to reverse the KMT’s faltering fortunes, it did not do so. It may even have accelerated the KMT’s decline.

Taiwanese did not of course vote for independence earlier this month. They know that would be a provocation Beijing could not bear. Polls have for years consistently shown that a majority want to preserve the status quo into the foreseeable future – a separate life, but not a formal separation. The long-term concern of the voters, this time, was to see that sense of separateness restated politically. Their more immediate concern was with an economy doing less well than in the past, too dependent on one market, namely China, and providing fewer jobs, especially the quality jobs that its increasingly well educated young people need. They voted for the party they felt could best provide an answer on both counts.

Ms Tsai will have a hard time meeting such expectations. Beijing could sabotage a DPP government by bribing and bullying the few nations that still recognise Taipei into ending diplomatic relations, keeping Taiwan out of multilateral organisations and trade pacts, and cutting down the number of Chinese tourists visiting the island, an important source of income. Even if China refrains from such moves, the Taiwanese economy has serious structural problems, which will not easily be solved.

The big problem on both sides of the Strait is language. It is a minefield that could blow up in both Beijing’s and Tapei’s faces. Beijing insists on a vocabulary that prejudges the issue, from which Taipei backs away. The wrong words could lead to irrational actions that neither side really wants.

President-elect Tsai has to decide on a form of words on “one China” that will not affront Beijing too much but will not open her to a charge of selling out at home by her supporters. On the South China Sea, if she were even to hint at a change in the Taiwanese position on the islands, which has been essentially the same as that of the People’s Republic and indeed predates it, that would be a red rag for China.

China’s real difficulty, when it encounters reverses, is that it has no reverse gear. The best hope for the next few years is that President Tsai is a resilient politician who rescued her party from a very weak position, has it firmly under control, and is both cautious and shrewd. She is a steady pair of hands. Beijing ought be content with that.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on Taiwan: Trump should handle with care | Editorial
Editorial: The president-elect’s intentions towards Taiwan are unclear – and worrying. This does not augur well for the island or the region


16, Dec, 2016 @6:58 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Donald Trump and Asia: allies are anxious too | Editorial
Editorial: Destabilising the Asian-Pacific status quo and unsettling China is not an end in itself. Regional powers are unnerved by erratic and even contradictory signals from the US


09, Feb, 2017 @7:09 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Taiwan diplomacy: a delicate balance | Editorial
Editorial: The US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ might lack satisfying certainty but it has worked as a method for keeping the peace


03, Aug, 2022 @6:00 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Ukraine and Taiwan: looking for lessons | Editorial
Editorial: The Russian invasion – and resistance to it – are prompting reassessment in Beijing and Washington as well as in Taipei


24, Apr, 2022 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on North Korea: keep calm and carry on | Editorial
Editorial: The world will have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. The alternatives are even worse


03, Sep, 2017 @5:39 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on China: political spectacle and substance | Editorial
Editorial: The springtime political gatherings in Beijing are a carefully choreographed show. They can only tell us so much


03, Mar, 2017 @7:28 PM

Article image
China blasts Japanese minister’s ‘sinister’ remarks about Taiwan
Beijing lodges diplomatic protest with Japan after defence minister calls island a ‘democratic country’

Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

29, Jun, 2021 @1:12 PM

Article image
Will China turn Taiwan into the next Crimea?
US support for Taiwan may prove red rag to bullish China given trade war and military rivalry

Simon Tisdall

03, Apr, 2018 @12:12 PM

South China Sea dispute: Taiwan flexes its muscles | Editorial

Editorial: By hook or by crook, Taiwan is winning greater regional influence under a leader criticised at home as being too pro-Chinese


19, May, 2013 @10:48 PM

Article image
The Observer view on Xi Jinping’s increasing threats to Taiwan | Observer editorial
Joe Biden’s wavering over what to do about China’s ambitions are fuelling its president’s dangerous swaggering

Observer editorial

10, Oct, 2021 @5:30 AM