10 Dec 2018
Taiwan's Local Election Results Seen as Presaging Closer Mainland Ties
With the recent local elections seen as giving the incumbent DPP something of a bloody nose, many are now expecting the party to revise its hard-line approach to cross-Strait ties or face almost certain defeat in the 2020 Presidential vote.
As a result of Taiwan's 24 November "9-in-1" local elections (elections for nine local government offices), the Nationalist Party (the current opposition, also known as the Kuomintang and the KMT) won mayoral elections in three of the leading six municipalities, including Taichung and Kaohsiung. It also won 12 of the 16 contests for county magistrates and city mayors, and beat the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by a considerable margin in the votes for county / city councillors and town leaders.
The KMT's victory has led to expectations of a gradual warming of cross-Strait relations. In line with this, cross-Strait exchanges may be set to increase, with city-to-city interactions seen as both a barometer of the mood of the two jurisdictions and a potential catalyst for change. The tourism sector is also optimistic, hoping that more mainland visitors will soon be coming to Taiwan.
The previous KMT administration, under Ma Ying-jeou, actively promoted cross-Strait exchanges and co-operation. The mood, however, changed dramatically in 2016 when the DPP took office and distanced itself from the so-called 1992 Consensus, the tacit endorsement of the One China Principle brokered between Taiwan and the mainland some 24 years previously.
Although the most recent elections were only local polls, they have been taken as an indicator of the way voting is likely to go in the forthcoming Presidential election. In short, the relatively positive outcome for the KMT has fuelled expectations that the party may well return to power in 2020. At the same time, given its electoral setback, the DPP could feel obliged to compromise and to adopt a less confrontational cross-Strait policy.
To date, the post-election signals coming from the mainland have been almost wholly positive. Clearly seeing the positive side of the vote, a statement from the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office said the results "showed the strong desire of Taiwan's people for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, along with improvements to the local economy and to their living standards. In line with this, it is to be hoped that more Taiwanese cities and counties will enter into exchanges and co-operative ventures with their mainland counterparts."
During the course of the Ma Ying-jeou administration, many of the mainland's local government bodies established exchange platforms with Taiwan. This resulted in a number of jointly organised forums and trade fairs, with several Taiwanese municipalities working closely with their opposite numbers in Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Hunan, Shandong, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Chongqing and Wuhan. At the time, parties from the two territories took it in turns to host these annual events. Since 2016, however, those that have continued have been almost exclusively hosted by the mainland-based partner. This, though, looks likely to be one of the first examples of cross-Strait co-operation to be rebooted.
Immediately after the results of the election were made known, Ko Wen-je, Mayor of Taipei, announced that his city would host the Taipei-Shanghai City Forum on 20 December this year. As the first cross-Straits city-to-city exchange to take place since the elections, its success (or not) will be taken as a sure indication as to whether there is likely to be any real thaw in mainland-Taiwan cordialities.
Since 2010, Taipei and Shanghai have been taking it in turns to host the annual inter-city forum and exchange of visits, with the two sides having signed 30 memoranda of co-operation since the launch of the initiative. This year's forum, the ninth, is to focus on the circular economy, with specific seminars dedicated to public housing / urban renewal, healthcare, culture and environmental protection issues.
At present, the authorities on both sides of the Strait seem optimistic about the prospects of the event. For its part, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council has gone on record pledging its support for such cross-Strait inter-city exchanges, while the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office has said that the successful hosting of the twin-city forum is certain to boost connectivity between the two cities, while promoting the interests and well-being of people on both sides of the Strait.
It is not just the move towards enhanced city-to-city exchanges, however, that has been a sign of a gradual thaw between Taipei and Beijing. Indeed, many other sectors are equally keen to facilitate closer ties. Most obviously, Taiwan's tourism industry has huge self-interest in seeing the return of the pre-2016 detente.
In the past two years, the number of mainland tourists visiting the territory has plummeted, largely as a consequence of the reduced visa quota implemented by the mainland government, as well as a number of other official disincentives. As well as the tourism industry per se, this has also had a huge and damaging knock-on effect on Taiwan's catering, retail, transportation, real estate and hospitality sectors.
The negative consequences of the renewed adversity between Taiwan and the mainland also couldn't have come at a worse time for the former. The DPP assumed office at a point when global economic growth was slowing down, with Taiwan's GDP increasing by just 1.5% in 2016, and then by 2.86% in 2017. According to the territory's Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, this sluggish growth is only set to continue, with GDP growth for 2018 expected to be about 2.69%, with a decline to 2.55% set to follow in 2019.
In addition, the territory has also found itself caught in the crossfire of the China-US trade war, largely because of its role in the supply chain of both countries. At present, the DPP's avowedly pro-US stance has already negatively impacted cross-Strait economic and trade co-operation, a stance that has seen it heavily criticised both at home and abroad.
Given the numerous push-and-pull economic factors that are prodding Taiwan to renew its relative appeasement of mainland China, it is all but certain that the current government – or its likely successor – will soon be making moves to smooth over the difficulties of recent years. How palatable this will be to an easily affronted Beijing – as well as to the more militantly anti-PRC factions within Taiwan – is, of course, another question entirely.
Robert Kang, Special Correspondent, Taipei