Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters as she leaves a hotel for her return to Taiwan after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, Calif., Jan. 14, 2017.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters as she leaves a hotel for her return to Taiwan after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, Calif., Jan. 14, 2017.

TAIPEI - The Taiwan ruling party's expected nomination this week of Beijing-wary incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen for a second term in office will kick off a campaign season highlighted by the island's sticky, increasingly strained ties with China.

Tsai won't talk to officials in Beijing unless the Communist government drops its demand that she identifies Taiwan as part of a single China. The 62-year-old law scholar first elected in 2016 is expected to run with the Democratic Progressive Party against an opposition Nationalist Party candidate who favors more engagement with Beijing. Their views would shape a campaign that will last until Taiwanese go to the polls in January.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the Nationalists lost to the Communists and re-based their government on the nearby island. China insists that the two sides eventually unify. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s and in January a government poll found that about 80% of Taiwanese oppose unification with Beijing. 

“Taiwan’s people will become more opposed to China, more opposed to the Communist Party government, so they will end up being more opposed to candidates from the Nationalist Party,” said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies in Taiwan. “Will ballots be cast for the Democratic Progressive Party then? I think there’s got to be some effect.”

But many voters also want strong economic ties with China. Tsai’s party takes a guarded stance toward China and has never sat down for talks, while the Nationalists have a record of dialogue with China on trade and investment ties.

Leading campaign issue

China has always been a focus of politics in Taiwan, but this year the topic took on extra weight because of a landmark pro-unification speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping aimed at Taiwan, and mass street protests in Hong Kong against elements of growing Chinese control over the former British colony that’s sometimes watched as a bellwether for what would happen if China took over Taiwan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019.

Taiwan’s ties with the United States, a former Cold War foe of China, grew more intense last year under Tsai and U.S. President Donald Trump. That trend raises Tsai’s image among Taiwanese voters, while angering Beijing.

Trump’s government has moved multiple times to help Taiwan militarily. China operates the world’s third strongest armed forces after the United States and Russia. It has not ruled out use of force, if needed, to unify with Taiwan.

Tsai’s campaign stance

Tsai began building political momentum in January, when she rebutted the Chinese president’s speech calling for unification under what Beijing’s leader described as “one country, two systems.” She later publicly rejected Beijing’s idea that her government see Taiwan as part of China.

“One country, two systems,” a model that’s now applied to Hong Kong, would put Beijing in charge but give Taiwanese a degree of local autonomy. China gained control of Hong Kong in 1997.

Tsai won her party primary Thursday against her own former premier William Lai, who has called himself a “worker for Taiwan independence,” after a boost in her popular approval ratings since January. Tsai was polling below 30% in 2018. Last month the Taipei-based nonprofit research group Cross-Strait Policy Association survey gave her a 41% rating. 

In this image made from video, Taiwan's outgoing Premier Lai Ching-te, left, shakes hands with President Tsai Ing-wen, center, as newly appointed Premier Su Tseng-chang, right, looks on after a press conference at the presidential office in Taipei, T

“Mainland China’s so-called ‘one-country, two systems’ make a lot of Taiwanese feel unsafe, and when they're not safe, Tsai Ing-wen will promote her image,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University. 

National Party candidates

The Nationalists are scheduled to pick a candidate in July. Frontrunners include Han Kuo-yu, the populist mayor of the southern city Kaohsiung, and Terry Gou, chairman of the giant consumer electronics assembler Foxconn Technology. Han has worked out a deal to sell local farm products to China. The Foxconn head, also known as Gou Tai-ming, builds gear such as Apple’s iPhones at factories in China.

Taiwanese say they want stronger economic ties with China to stimulate investment and trade with the $13 trillion Chinese GDP – but without political concessions.  China today urges its 170-plus diplomatic allies to avoid free-trade deals with Taiwan, hobbling economic growth. 

Tsai’s lack of dialogue with China since 2016 halted a string of trade and investment deals that her Nationalist predecessor signed with Beijing. The ex-president reached those deals after agreeing with Beijing’s condition both sides belong to China.

Tsai’s primary win means the ruling party is confident she can win reelection, some experts say.

“This will easily consolidate the kind of party unity with in the (Democratic Progressive Party), and also Han Kuo-yu and Gou Tai-ming, they will know that the forthcoming election is not going to be easy,” said Liu Yih-jiun, a public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.