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Cross-Strait relations and Japan's Position under the Biden administration

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Politics and Government in Taiwan

The 2020 U.S. presidential election has finally been decided, and seven months have passed since the new President Biden took office. In this context, Taiwan cannot be ignored in the focus of attention on its policy toward China. Taiwan has a unique ethnic group problem and is under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party. Last year, the Tsai Ing-wen administration became stable after winning the direct presidential election twice in a row, a symbol of Taiwan's democratization. The struggle between the two major political parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has shifted from a past in which the KMT was overwhelmingly dominant to a situation in which the DPP has a relative advantage over the present.

The situation surrounding Taiwan is becoming increasingly tense. China is pressuring Taiwan to unify. With the advent of the Xi Jinping era, military aircraft and warships sailing around Taiwan, and the full-scale confrontation between the United States and China, Taiwan is at the forefront of geopolitics.

Figure 1: 2020 Taiwan election quick count result

25 years from democratization to DPP dominance

In last year's presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected with 8.17 million votes, the most votes in Taiwan's electoral history. The reason for her victory is said to be the establishment of Taiwan's identity. This was due to the fact that the DPP's government was increasingly wary of China due to the unification of Taiwan by Xi Jinping and the protests in Hong Kong.

Since 1996, when the late Lee Teng-hui was elected, the KMT, which had been absolutely dominant, has repeatedly split. In this environment, the DPP has been gradually gaining ground and has been able to maintain its dominance through a series of elections.

In last year's presidential election, Soong Chu-yu ran as neither a member of the KMT nor the DPP, and as shown in the figure above, he split the KMT in two. In the election campaign, it was stated that Soong Chu-yu would not join the KMT. In addition, he did not threaten the DPP as the third force in the election. It is unlikely to threaten the DPP in the future, and the DPP will continue to have a relative advantage in the future.

Taiwanese Identity and Nationalism

One of the reasons behind the shift in Taiwanese politics toward the DPP's dominance is the change in Taiwanese public consciousness. Every year, Taiwanese people are asked to choose an identity between "Taiwanese (green)," "Chinese (blue)," and "both Taiwanese and Chinese (red)" (Election Study Center, National Chengchi University). In the survey, the number of respondents who answered "Chinese" has been decreasing; on average, from 2010 to 2019, about 56% of respondents answered "Taiwanese." In other words, this awareness is behind the high percentage of respondents who support the DPP.

Figure 2: Changes in the Taiwanese/Chinese Identity of Taiwanese as Tracked in Surveys by the Election Study Center, NCCU (1992 – 2020.06)

The results of the survey also indicate whether people support "independence-oriented," "reunification-oriented," or "status quo" for the future of Taiwan. Taiwan independence refers to the establishment of a Taiwanese state (Republic of Taiwan), while Chinese reunification refers to the future reunification of Taiwan and mainland China. Maintaining the status quo, on the other hand, is somewhere between independence and unification.

It is important to note that in Taiwan, some people consider both independence and unification to be the same thing, referring to the position of maintaining the status quo of the democratized and "Taiwanized" Republic of China. Incidentally, Taiwan and the Republic of China are two different concepts. In other words, Taiwan's political position in the future can be divided into three categories: Taiwanese nationalism (independence-oriented), Chinese nationalism (reunification-oriented), and a loose Taiwanese identity (status quo-first) that lies somewhere in between these two nationalisms.

Taiwan as the Republic of China

The late Lee Teng-hui formulated the concept of "the Republic of China in Taiwan" (one Chinese nation in Taiwan) and formed a political position (Taiwan identity) of maintaining the status quo without reunification or independence. Tsai Ing-wen inherited this line of thinking, and she uses the term "Republic of China, Taiwan" in her speeches. Today, it is said that Chinese nationalism has gradually become smaller. On the other hand, Taiwanese nationalism has gradually expanded but has not reached the majority. Taiwanese identity is the one with the most support. The percentage of support for each is as follows.

Figure 3: 29% of respondents support independence, 49% support the status quo, and 16% support unification.

Neither the DPP nor the KMT can win elections on the basis of nationalism alone, so

they are forced to seek support from the status quo (Taiwan identity). This status quo (Taiwan identity) segment is wary of bipolar nationalism. In recent years, as Xi Jinping has increased the pressure for Taiwan reunification, they have become warier of Chinese nationalism. Those who want Taiwan's independence are dissatisfied with Tsai's status quo policy, but as president of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai is trying to successfully control the party and form the largest majority support base that will not bow to Chinese pressure.

After WWII, the political and economic system in Taiwan was built on a "pro-US, anti-communist" line. This value system, established by Chiang Kai-shek and maintained with sacrifices, has deeply penetrated Taiwanese society. In the event of a confrontation between the U.S. and China, the layers of Taiwanese identity will certainly lean toward the U.S. The Tsai administration, which is working to strengthen ties with the United States, is in line with this trend. Therefore, the defeat of the KMT can be explained within this framework. The intensifying confrontation between the U.S. and China is further strengthening the trend in favor of the DPP and against the KMT.

Tsai Ing-wen's Second Term and the Future

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has become a powerful party and has been in power for a long time. The Taiwanese media has been increasingly critical of the ruling party's various problems and intra-party squabbles over interests and posts. There were times when Tsai's approval rating declined, but she is said to have maintained her high approval rating through her coronavirus pandemic response. She has shown her ability to govern on issues where the lives of the people are at stake. Furthermore, amidst the confrontation between the U.S. and China, Taiwan has strengthened its cooperation with the U.S. and is working to strengthen Taiwan's defense. The purchase of 108 tanks and 66 fighter jets under the Trump administration has also had the effect of appealing to Taiwanese voters. The Japanese government, on the other hand, has developed little policy toward Taiwan since 2018, citing Taiwan's restrictions on food imports from the five prefectures surrounding Fukushima. The Abe administration was said to be pro-Taiwan, etc., but the fact is that it has not been particularly supportive of the Tsai administration.

What should be considered as Japan's role

At this point, the possibility that China will launch an invasion of Taiwan cannot be denied. It is reported by some military sources that China has not been able to draw up a blueprint for a landing operation and occupation and control of Taiwan. However, it is highly likely that China will continue its threatening military actions. It has been pointed out that if an invasion of Taiwan were to take place and Taiwan were to panic, and the U.S. military and Japan were to stand by and watch, China might see it as an opportunity and escalate its military actions. Fortunately, the power base of the Tsai administration is stable, and the popular will to reject reunification is strong. It is unlikely that Taiwan will easily succumb to military threats.

I feel that the Japanese government must not stand idly by but must maintain a strong will and readiness to absolutely not allow China to use force, and must express this will to China and call on the international community to cooperate. The cost of an invasion of Taiwan would be immeasurable, even more so than the backlash from China. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait is necessary from the standpoint of Japan's national interest, and once the pandemic is settled, Taiwanese exchanges should become more active.

If China were to use force, it is easy to predict that Japan's sympathy for Taiwan would be extremely high and that anti-Chinese sentiment would explode. Therefore, I feel that it is necessary to make China strongly aware of the prospect that Japan-China relations will not be able to normalize from that moment on.

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