Written by Pascal Abb.

On January 16, Taiwanese voters are widely expected to effect the third change in government since the R.O.C.’s full democratization, with the main open questions being the exact margin of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s victory, the order in which her two opponents from within the pan-blue camp will place, and most importantly, whether the new administration will also be able to rely on a majority in the Legislative Yuan.

For the most part, this expected result can be explained by the stunning unpopularity of outgoing KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, whose second term was marred by flagging economic growth, mounting opposition against his policy of intensifying ties with the mainland, and a heavy-handed approach to relations with parliament. However, there are also more fundamental changes underway in how many Taiwanese citizens view cross-strait relations and domestic politics. Early signs of this shift could already be observed in 2014, first in the Sunflower Movement protests against the highly controversial „Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement“ (CSSTA), and later that year, in the KMT’s huge losses in the „nine-in-one“ elections. On both occasions, Taiwan’s youth turned decisively against the governing party and emerged as the most active voice against its cross-strait policy.

Surveys such as the TEDS project run by National Chengchi University’s Election Studies Center have investigated this phenomenon and revealed very distinct political attitudes among respondents between the ages of 20 and 29: more than 70% consider themselves exclusively Taiwanese (the highest share in any age group); among those who identify with or lean towards a party, the DPP enjoys more than a 2-1 advantage over the KMT; they show by far the highest support for eventual independence (though favoring the maintenance of the status quo in the short term); and they overwhelmingly distrust the mainland government, again more so than any other age group. While making long-term forecasts about the stability of such trends is always problematic, this suggests major political shifts are ahead as a result of demographic shifts. Identity, in particular, is not infinitely malleable, and a generational experience of political coming of age amid widespread grassroots protests can have significant long-term impacts, as evidenced by developments in many Western countries.

Why is this important? One major implication of this trend is that if it persists, the central assumption underlying Beijing’s current cross-strait policy – that time is on its side and closer interactions between both sides will eventually lead to majority support for peaceful unification on Taiwan – will turn out to be wrong. Furthermore, it even seems questionable if its preferred partner on the island, the KMT, will be able to maintain both its stance on eventual unification as fundamentally desirable and its capability of winning elections. This presents Beijing with a major headache in how to respond to the change in government, whether to double down on its insistence that it will only deal with actors who consider Taiwan a part of China, or whether to adapt to the shifting situation in Taiwan and reach out to forces it has previously denounced as separatists. Assuming that extreme options like a unification by force are not on the table for the time being (though this certainly cannot be ruled out in the long term), Beijing faces a choice between three basic strategies.

The first option is to confront the new government immediately, most likely by demanding its acceptance of the „1992 consensus“ and the „one China principle“ contained therein, in the full knowledge that this is unpalatable to DPP supporters and would therefore be rejected. This rejection could then be used to justify punitive measures – constricting Taiwan’s international space further by repealing the „diplomatic truce“ and inducing other parties to switch recognition to Beijing, blocking Taiwan’s accession to international organizations and free-trade areas and forcing its eviction from those where it already is a member; rescinding the quotas for cross-strait tourism and flights, or even blocking Taiwanese investments on the mainland and cutting back on the economic ties developed under the Ma administration (in decreasing order of likelihood). Such measures would probably not lead a DPP administration to cave in on its fundamental stance on China, but may be intended to trigger a further economic downturn in Taiwan that could then set the stage for a return to power of the KMT in 2020.

This strategy is very likely to backfire, however, since it would not punish a DPP government for a specific action, but rather the citizens of Taiwan for exercising their hard-won democratic rights, which are a key point of civic pride and distinction from the mainland. It would thus serve to accentuate precisely the cleavage on which opinion is shifting against the KMT, solidify opposition to Beijing particularly in the younger generation, boost demands to disentangle Taiwan’s economy from the mainland’s, and set Beijing up as a culprit for any future problems with economic performance. Unless the current trend towards Taiwan identity is fleeting or would be completely eclipsed by material concerns, this approach is unlikely to improve the KMT’s electoral outlook, especially if it is perceived as aiding Beijing in a campaign that harms the well-being of Taiwanese citizens.

Alternatively, Beijing could embrace the new government, either by ignoring its non-adherence to the 1992 consensus or declaring Tsai’s stance compatible with the one-China principle. It could stress that maintaining pragmatic cooperation and expanding interactions are more important to cross-strait unity than political semantics, playing on Xi Jinping’s theme of both sides „still being connected by flesh even if the bones are broken“ which he voiced during his meeting with Ma in November. This meeting could also serve as a precedent for expanding cross-strait talks beyond the current interparty model or lower-ranked officials.

Such an approach would make sense if China is highly confident in its fundamental economic and cultural (if certainly not political) attractiveness to people on Taiwan, essentially betting that closer contacts will be able to win them over, while the repudiation of the KMT’s policies had more to do with its performance rather than a general shift in attitudes towards cross-strait integration. However, a sudden about-face on Beijing’s stance towards the DPP seems quite unlikely, since it would go against Beijing’s long-standing demands and propaganda line towards Taiwan, undercutting its credibility both at home and abroad. Perhaps more importantly, it would also jeopardize the CCP’s „special relationship“ with the KMT, invalidate the special honors extended to Ma for his personal initiative in cross-strait relations, and would terminally undermine the KMT’s claim to be the natural guardian of stability across the Taiwan strait.

Finally, the third and most likely strategy is to keep as many options open as possible, allowing the status quo to persist. Under such a scenario, a DPP government would still be met with skepticism by Beijing, but given the chance to implement its agenda. Notably, Tsai Ing-wen has gone on the record that she would prefer to maintain tourist exchanges and is open towards continuing to negotiate agreements like the CSSTA provided that oversight mechanisms are established beforehand, indicating that there could be further progress even if there is no breakthrough towards political talks. This is, of course, not guaranteed, as the backlash against further integration agreements was not just based on the style of their passage, but also their substance, and independent activists may turn against a DPP administration as well. However, the latter would still enjoy an initial trust advantage on these issues which it could use to bring activists on board.

Such cooperation could be relatively stable assuming that a DPP government stays true to its stated agenda and focuses on bread-and-butter rather than identity issues. This will arguably be more likely under conditions of unified governance, whereas heated partisan competition between the executive and legislature was one of the major causes for the downturn in cross-strait relations during Chen Shui-bian’s second term. Authorities on the mainland could also use this time to rethink their messaging towards Taiwan and how their own actions are perceived if conflict is to be avoided. Over the past years, there have been numerous incidents in which mainland agencies adopted unilateral measures like issuing new ID cards for Taiwanese visitors or changing flight routes over the Taiwan strait that were perceived as highly arrogant and overbearing on the island. Furthermore, China could expand its practice of engaging mainly „blue“-leaning academics in dialogues and Track-II-mechanisms further towards their „green“ colleagues, aiming for a better understanding of this camp in order to avoid miscommunications and counterproductive moves.

Completely smooth sailing should not be expected – selective and small-scale punitive measures, such as the temporary reduction of tourist quotas or blocking individual Taiwanese investment projects, could still be implemented in order to express dissatisfaction with specific actions of a DPP government, but they would serve a signaling function rather than a fundamentally confrontative attitude. Here, too, the swift establishment of unofficial channels with the DPP would be crucial in assuring that such signals are appropriately communicated.

Tsai Ing-wen’s focus on maintaining the status quo and refusal to affirm or deny the „1992 consensus“ has repeatedly been criticized as vague by mainland officials and media organizations, who demanded a clear endorsement of the implied one-China principle. Certainly, this ambiguity has served her well in the election campaign, but it also appears to be the best option to manage the growing gap between the mainland’s ambitions and popular sentiment on Taiwan once she is elected. Both the domestic political environment in Taiwan and the balance of power across the Taiwan strait (and in broader East Asia) have been extraordinarily fluid in recent years, creating conditions of uncertainty that make a flexible approach prudent. Applying the same principle to its own future policy towards Taiwan also seems like the most rational course for Beijing to take, an assessment which authorities on the mainland will hopefully share.

Pascal Abb is a research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and currently based in Beijing at Tsinghua University. In 2015, he spent nine months at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations as a Taiwan Fellow.