The US-Taiwan Relation After the 2014 Taiwan Local Election

I. Introduction

The relations between Taiwan and the U.S. is one of the most critical foreign policy of Taiwan’s government. However, with the rapidly rising China, the priority of the policy direction is always under debated. There are a great deal of factors should be considered. This essay will focus on the democratic elections which is one of the most powerful factor to drive the government’s policy. Since the 2014 local election in Taiwan, the political environment altered and the future Taiwan’s relation with the U.S. might be on the new stage.

II. The Major Setback of The Ruling Party in 2014 Local Election

The Taiwan local election on November 29, 2014 was the huge shock to every sides, including the ruling party, the opposing party, even the Chinese Communist Party and the rest of the world. It was the biggest defeat to the governing party of Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT) since Taiwan democratization in 1990s. People believe that it would be a battle result beforehand the presidential election in 2016. Therefore, it is a serious alarm to not only the KMT but the China’s leadership.

The KMT originally ruled the majority of the municipalities’ mayors and county magistrates, however, in the 2014 local election, in the six elections for head of the largest municipalities, the KMT won only New Taipei City with a slight victory and lost the other five municipalities to the opposition. For city mayoral or county magistrate elections, the KMT retained only six out of the sixteen seats. The KMT only gained 40.7 percent of the vote in this election. 

There are several reasons for this landslide defeat of the KMT. First and the most important one is the discontent toward the president Ma’s administration performance. People in Taiwan are suffered from some problems, such as the long-term wage stagnation, worsening social inequality, food safety problems and so on. The corruption scandals also damaged the images of the Ma’s administration. The incompetent images of the president Ma is ingrained in the Taiwanese people’s minds by the hostile and claptrap media. The opinion polls showing the public support for the President Ma keeps declining to the historically lowest point.

Second, internal political struggles have further tarnished the KMT's image. The struggle between President Ma and Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang in September 2013 contributed to the decline of the KMT’s political support and strength the incompetent image of the President Ma. In addition, the leak scandal of the Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chang also worsen the image of the ruling party. In short, people were disappointed and no longer trust this party. 

Third, this huge defeat can be seen as the public and civilian refusal to the KMT’s China policy of the past 7 years. People in Taiwan are afraid of the over-dependence on China, including economy and politics, in recent years by the KMT’s pro-China position. The Sunflower Movement happened in March 2014 was one of the biggest protest demonstrating people’s hesitation of whether the economic growth is important enough to gradually give up the political independence. For ordinary Taiwanese people, the fears of closer relationship with China cannot be wipe out easily.

Forth, the style of the President Ma’s political leadership has been widely criticized, especially his “inner-circle decision-making” process. His administration implemented the unpopular policies because of the firm insistency of the President Ma who has a vast distance separating from the public opinion. The President Ma might be blinded by his inner-circle advisors, too. Therefore, the unpopularity of the President Ma directly effected on the result of the 2014 local election. 

Fifth, the KMT’s wrong campaign and nomination strategy led to the failure of election. The analyses claimed that the lacking in local connection of KMT’s candidates is one of the major mistake made by the party, the assassin strategy, for example, did not work at all in this campaign. Because of the local empty of young generation in KMT, they could not have the appropriate candidates to run the campaign. By contrast, the opposing party (Democratic Progressive Party, DDP) is attended to cultivate the local political successors and strength their influence, so the positive results were confirmed in the 2014 election, especially in the middle and southern Taiwan.

Lastly, the public image of KMT has been deeply linked with entrepreneurs, the wealthy, and the dignitary. The ordinary people suffered from the low wages and social inequality are difficult to be the supporters of KMT, especially when KMT’s candidate of capital city is  Sean Lien, a typical  second-generation politician and with a fabulously wealthy family. As a result, even the pan-KMT voters could not be persuaded into supporting this candidate, either. The distance between the KMT and the common people is far away. 

The historical defeat of ruling party sent the world several messages, particularly to the Beijing leadership, that people in Taiwan showed their doubts to the interactions with China. 

III. The US-Taiwan Relation 

The “One China” policy is the fundamental principle of the U.S. while dealing with  the Taiwan issue since 1970s. Namely, maintaining the current situation of the cross-strait serves the interests of all over the world. However, with the tight informal relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, Taiwan still plays critical role on the regional security strategy and be an important economic partner of the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. would not let any sides change the situation unilaterally. 

In the past 7 years, under the President Ma’s administration, the closer and closer relationship between the cross-strait did not truly touch the core interest of the U.S. While people in Taiwan were demonstrating their dissatisfaction and hesitation to the government Ma during the Sunflower Movement on March 2014, the U.S. did not change the their policy and statement with respect to the Taiwan issue. The fact is that what the U.S. cares about during the movement are the peaceful democratic campaigns and status quo of cross-strait. As a result, we can tell that the U.S. interest in this region is nothing more important than stability.

However, it is undoubtedly that the rising China’s ambition is getting stronger and obvious in recent years, from the territory conflict against Japan, frequent military actions in the South China Sea, and the latest founding of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB.) Namely, even though the U.S. does not plan to intensify the regional atmosphere, she cannot ignore the changing power relations in the east Asia. Besides, how to handle the rising power is always listed on the agenda, and the result of the 2014 Taiwan local election might be a clear signal to the U.S. It is the fact that Taiwanese people are still suspicious of the closeness with mainland China, especially for the young generation, they would not let the government develop the intimate relationship with China without people’s permission. According to several researches, the younger of the voters, the stronger Taiwanese identity and more distrustful towards mainland China. This phenomenon might be able to explains why the KMT lost the election in 2014 and also sends a message to the U.S. stating that Taiwan is still their Western Pacific staunch ally. 

1st April 2015, the emergency landing of two U.S. Marine Corps F-18 fighter jets on the island of Taiwan appears to have been a political message to Beijing. The time, the location and the action are worthy of more explanations. First, the time is just two days after the Chinese bomber exercise near the island, which intended to signal a threat to U.S. force on Guam. Second, the location, Taiwan, is not the common choice of U.S. military since the aircraft could have made an emergency landing at a less-controversial location such as the Japanese airfield at Shimoji island, only 120 miles east of Taiwan. Third, the action, landing the U.S. military aircraft on Taiwan, has been the first time in the past 28 years since all U.S. military activities with Taiwan are under the pressure of Beijing’s “One China Policy” which limits the formal military cooperation between Taiwan and the U.S. Therefore, this emergency landing seemed to cross the red line, so Beijing had a solemn representations that the U.S. should respect the “One China” principle and follow The Three Communiqué during this “accident.” But the analysts all suggested that this “accident” is a significant political signal to Beijing showing the domination of the U.S. power in this region while China is trying to reset the regional power situation. On the other hand, Taiwan is seen as the U.S. military alliance in this “accident,” as a result, with the intension of this region and frequency of China’s action, the importance of Taiwan will be highlighted.

IV. The Coming 2016 Presidential Election

The coming presidential election in 2016 of Taiwan will be the new stage of the US-Taiwan relation while the ruling party, KMT, seems that they will lose their governing power in a year and the power will be shifted to the opposing party, the DPP.

The internal problems of the KMT are not yet ready to settle down, after the President Ma’s resignation of the KMT chairman. The new chairman, Eric Chu, the mayor of the New Taipei City, is facing an amount of challenges. He was the political star and seen as the future president before the local election in 2014, but the slight victory of himself and KMT’s landslide defeat altered the future prospect of everything. Due to his personal and political concerns of Eric Chu, the KMT still has no explicit candidates to run the 2016 presidential election and everyone feels pessimistic to the coming 2016. On the contrary, with the historical victory in the local election, the DDP’s chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen has been nominated as the DDP’s candidate of 2016 presidential race and started running the campaign already. The DDP feels confident of the second political party transfer and the public opinions also think so. The challenge lying in front of her for winning the presidency is whether she can propose a convincing cross-strait policy that satisfies the doubts in domestic and international audiences. Besides, the DDP prefers keeping a comfortable distance from being integrated with mainland China, but it must also find a way to achieve satisfactory economic performance in order to smooth the people’s discontentment against the Ma’s administration. Furthermore, Tsai should persuade the voters to support not because people dislike the KMT but because they recognize her as a real leader.

The 2016 election in Taiwan is a general one, including the presidential and legislative elections. While many analyses stated that the DPP will win both of them because of the presidential candidates, but the situation is still not yet clear due to some concerns. First, the spilt-ticket voting is common in Taiwan. Besides, the KMT has deeply rooted local factions and well-structured organizational warfare tradition, so the result of the Legislative Yuan is not easy to predict. If the divided government appeals in the 2016, how these two political parties interact with each other will be another point to focus on. 

The US-Taiwan relation might be changed if the Taiwan political power transfer happens again. It is likely that the DDP will regain the power in 2016 if the KMT still cannot have a convincing candidate. In general, the DDP is usually considered to be a party closer to the US-Japan side and suspicious to China. However, the ex-president from the DDP, Chen Shui-bian, is a pro-independence activist who was seen as a trouble-maker by both China and the U.S. leaderships, so the domestic and the international society now are eager to know what kind of person Tsai Ing-wen is, especially the China and the U.S. leaderships. Fortunately, so far as people known, she is a more moderate leader who are different from most of the typical grassroots DDP politicians, by contrary, just like the President Ma, she was an university professor before she entered the world of politics. People believe that she will be a milder advocator of the de facto Taiwan independence instead of a radical revisionist, also, this kind of person will meet the U.S. needs. At least, she is expected to be more balanced while dealing with the relationships between China and between the U.S. because the over-dependence on China is one of the most critical reason that the KMT lost their voters. Besides, the DDP is traditionally not as friendly as the KMT to China. To sum up, if the DDP gains the power again, people expect the future relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. will be optimistic. 

Richard Jenkins

Illinois State University

United States of America

Wang Han-Yi

National Chengchi University

Republic of China (Taiwan)

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