In only the span of only three years, another East Asian nation had elected a woman to the presidency.
The nation: the Republic of China. The woman: Tsai Ing-Wen. In an equally unprecedented move, the Taiwanese elected Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party into the majority of the Legislative Yuan at the same time. Many on the island see the January elections as a referendum against the policies of the ruling Kuomintang party and the president, Ma Ying-Jeou, which have slowed down the Taiwanese economy, and led to uncomfortably close relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Although the event is dated by a month, the ramifications of the election are significant, and have the potential to bring the United States and China into a diplomatic crisis. To start off, the ROC is in a precarious political situation. Although more-or-less considered an independent nation by the international community, the PRC has always considered Taiwan as a rogue province in need of unification. After the three Taiwan Strait crises in 1954, 1958, and 1995, the PRC has opted to go for a more subversive way of reunifying the rogue province with the mainland.
Enter the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang, the same party that fought against the Chinese Communist Party in a combined thirteen year long civil war (and lost, allowing for an independent Taiwan to exist), has adopted a more conciliatory tone with the mainland. Starting primarily with the start of Ma Ying-Jeou’s presidency in 2008, under the Kuomintang, relations have been heavily normalized with the PRC. Furthermore, under a series of trade policies, the ROC has become more and more economically dependent on the PRC. To compound issues, and to further destroy the Kuomintang’s election prospects, reneging on a promise not to meet with any leaders from the mainland, Ma met with Xi Jinping in Singapore months before the election. The response from the Taiwanese was expected: they were furious.
However, since its inception in the 1980s, the Democratic Progressive Party has taken a more independence-minded stance. Many in the party, Tsai included, are fine with the ROC being a de facto independent state (declaring independence from the PRC, however, could lead to a war between the two Chinas). Furthermore, unlike the Kuomintang, the DPP are in favor of greater economic independence from the mainland. With that and the slowing Taiwanese economy in mind, along with a split vote from former Kuomintang member James Soong and his People First Party, the Kuomintang suffered an embarrassing defeat.
Xi and the rest of the PRC will not be used to – or enjoy – the new order in Taiwan. Before the elections, the Chinese had televised PLA training exercises. The exercises were centered on an unsettling theme: invading Taiwan. Furthermore, after eight years of getting much of their way, the PRC leadership will have a much more difficult time not only getting through to Tsai, but to the DPP-majority Yuan. This is bound to increase tensions between the two nations, and could lead to a fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, which would drag the United States into the conflict. Any misstep, whether from Tsai or Xi, could lead to a diplomatic crisis (or a regional catastrophe).
Thankfully, that seems unlikely. The CCP has made it a habit of trying to prevent conflicts like the Taiwan Strait Crises. Furthermore, although lacking in experience in elected office, leaked diplomatic cables present Tsai as a very good and very tactful negotiator. With enough diplomatic finesse, Tsai and the DPP should be able to push away from the mainland without sparking an international crisis.
Once May comes around, we will all find out if that’s the case.