World Review | Taiwan elections tempt Beijing to try carrot and stick tactics

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Taiwan elections tempt Beijing to try carrot and stick tactics

Taiwan elections tempt Beijing to try carrot and stick tactics
Hsinchu, Sept. 10, 2015: artillery units fire during Taiwan’s annual military exercise to test the island’s ability to fend off an attack from mainland China (source: dpa)
Taiwan elections tempt Beijing to try carrot and stick tactics
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen if Beijing fails to pull Taipei closer, or if its next government presses for independence (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections on January 16, 2016. Opinion polls show the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is set to defeat the country’s ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Beijing has been following developments in Taiwan closely. It is concerned that a victory for the DPP candidate, party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, could put cross-strait relations back in a confrontational stance, writes World Review guest expert Dr. Nicola Casarini.

In recent months, China has adopted a carrot and stick approach toward Taiwan. On the one hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou at a historic summit in Singapore on November 7, hoping to boost the KMT’s chances. On the other hand, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has intensified its military drills targeted at Taiwan, simulating an invasion of the island and sending a powerful message to the pro-independence DPP.

Ms. Tsai retains a big lead ahead of the elections, despite the much-heralded Ma-Xi summit. An opinion poll by Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Policy Association released one day after the meeting showed Ms. Tsai held a lead over the KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu of 48.6 percent to 21.4 percent – virtually unchanged from a poll a month earlier.

The Ma-Xi meeting was the first opportunity for the two sides to consult as equals since Taiwan split with mainland China in 1949. While Ms. Tsai did not oppose the meeting, she criticized President Ma for not defending Taiwan’s position strongly enough. A significant portion of the Taiwanese public share her view. The Ma-Xi summit therefore does not seem to have benefited the KMT in any significant way. However, the meeting re-emphasized cross-strait ties as an election issue.

When Ms. Tsai visited Washington in June, she said she wanted to maintain the status quo in Taipei-Beijing relations. Still, she has been reluctant to elaborate on her China policy, which has left the door open to speculation as to the future of cross-strait ties under her government.

Beijing has clearly put its weight behind the KMT, while the Chinese army is preparing for a DPP victory. In an editorial published after the Ma-Xi summit, the Global Times – an influential tabloid considered the mouthpiece of the PLA and more conservative portions of the Communist Party – wrote that “if Tsai takes office, her ‘Taiwan Independence’ policy will be responded to by powerful countermoves from the mainland, including military force.”

According to a report from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND), senior leaders in Beijing have met to reevaluate China’s cross-strait policies. Due to Beijing’s concerns over the outcome of the upcoming elections, the Chinese army has conducted a series of military drills simulating an invasion of Taiwan, the report found.

In 2005 China passed the “Anti-Secession Law,” which made it clear that Beijing would use “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan moves toward declaring independence. The law also allows for the use of force against Taiwan if “possibilities for a peaceful re-unification should be completely exhausted.”

The MND said that, under the worst scenario, the mainland would first attempt to intimidate Taipei with a combination of military threats and a blockade. Thereafter, it could use some of the 1,500 missiles that the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps has deployed against Taiwan on political and military targets. The PLA would then mount an invasion using aircraft and amphibious vehicles.

All this comes as Beijing militarizes various reefs and islands in the South China Sea. China can make use of troops, artillery, radar and communication equipment and an airstrip in the area in the case of hostilities with Taiwan. It will be able to patrol the waters surrounding the island, monitor its activities and enforce any eventual blockade.

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