Taipei, Taiwan – Taiwan’s main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has wrapped up a nine-day trip to China, including meetings with some of the Communist Party’s highest-ranking officials, amid hopes its links with Beijing will help boost its chances in presidential elections that are due to be held next year.
Known as the party with the best working relationship with Beijing, the KMT’s close relationship is a sore spot among more nationalist-minded voters on the self-ruled island, but it is also a draw for the business community and older voters who still feel a strong cultural and political affinity for China.
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The trip marks the second visit in 12 months by KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia, who also visited China in August 2022 as tensions between Beijing and self-ruled Taiwan rose to their highest in 25 years. Held days after Beijing staged military exercises and fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in protest at a visit by then United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to the democratic island, Hsia’s August trip was highly controversial.
So was this one, earning a rebuke from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the body that oversees Taipei’s relations with Beijing. China claims the island as its own.
Analysts say the KMT may be banking on voter fatigue for the drama of the past year, which also saw Beijing send a record number of flights into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone — an area of land and sea monitored by the military — to intimidate Taiwan.
“The KMT, of course, is going to jump at the chance to demonstrate that they can cooperate with Beijing they can play nice together,” said Kharis Templeman, a research fellow at the US Hoover Institution and a member of its Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Region.
“And if in a year [Taiwanese] elect a KMT candidate as president, cross-strait relations will improve a lot. That’s clearly what they think will be the most effective pitch to voters and if Beijing helps them make that pitch that’s smart from Beijing’s perspective.”
He described the recent trip as a “smart play by Beijing” to try and undermine the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, dubbed a “separatist” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while also demonstrating its support for the KMT.
The KMT has accused Tsai and the DPP of being too confrontational with China, and of trying to paint the party as “red” — a reference to the colours of the CCP.
Range of views
While KMT members hold a range of views — from pro-unification hardliners to moderates and those who quietly see Taiwan as de facto independent — having the ear of Beijing may be its biggest trump card for voters who have also been anxiously watching the Ukraine war unfold over the past year.
Beijing has pledged to bring Taiwan and China together by 2049, and it has not ruled out the use of force as it overhauls its People’s Liberation Army into a powerful military force. This existential threat, combined with the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year, has made some voters nervous, while others may want to see life return to normal after the stress of further problems such as COVID-19.
“The Ukraine-Russian war has taught everyone a lesson: in war, ‘there are no winners, but all are losers.’ It’s time for the leadership of both sides across the Taiwan Strait to renew a focus on the bread-and-butter issues facing the post-pandemic world,” said Chih-yung Ho, deputy director general of the KMT’s culture and communications department.
Experts like Liu Fu-kuo, a professor and research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, agree.
They argue that recent controversies could give the KMT the edge it needs to win back public support.
The Taiwan Strait could see more flare-ups this year if Kevin McCarthy, the new US Speaker of the House, makes good on a promise to visit the East Asian democracy, according to Liu. Recent media reports in Taiwan also suggest that Tsai may be planning to visit the US herself later this year, breaking an unspoken rule that Taiwanese presidents do not visit American officials on US soil.
“Public opinion is on the move as seen in the last two local elections,” Liu told Al Jazeera, referring to electoral wins for the KMT in local polls in 2018 and 2022.
“The government has made a number of quite serious mistakes which have already shaken the support of younger generation. Last year after the missile crisis — the Fourth Strait Crisis — the younger generation understands that if we don’t improve things with China, Taiwan will be preparing with war,” he said.
While in China last week, Hsia and the KMT delegation met some of China’s highest-ranking leaders, including Wang Huning, a member of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee; Song Tao, the new head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office; and Yin Li, the party secretary of Beijing.
These are the same officials, however, who may well hope to dismantle democracy in Taiwan in much the same way as China has done in Hong Kong, where mass arrests and national security trials have wiped out a generation of pro-democracy leaders. Other “autonomous” regions like Tibet and Xinjiang live under some of China’s harshest restrictions.
Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy movement helped deliver Tsai a second — and landslide — victory in 2020 as Taiwanese voters watched with alarm events in the territory, where Beijing had promised to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms for at least 50 years. Dubbed “one country, two systems,” the offer was originally meant for Taiwan as a means of returning to the “motherland”.
Four years earlier, Tsai and the DPP rode into national office in 2016 on a wave of momentum from Taiwan’s “Sunflower Movement” that saw students occupy the island’s legislature in protest of a controversial KMT-touted trade deal that would have bound Taiwan closer to China.
Issue of Taiwan’s identity
In the years since, Taiwan’s national identity as somewhere distinct from China has just grown stronger.
Meanwhile, the KMT’s party membership is ageing and often appears out of touch with young voters, who noticeably did not baulk when the government extended mandatory national service for young men from four months to one year in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Against that backdrop, some doubt the KMT’s chances of recovering much political ground.
Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist in the Taiwan Studies Programme at the Australian National University, says reactions to the KMT trip in Taiwan had been “lukewarm” at best and said the entire event was eclipsed by the controversy over the alleged Chinese spy balloon brought down by the US.
Voters may also wonder about the KMT’s ability to get along with Washington, Taiwan’s main security guarantor. As US-China relations deteriorate, the US has moved closer to Taiwan over the past eight years and continues to approve critical weapons sales.
Japan, Taiwan’s other chief ally and hugely popular with Taiwanese, has also become more publicly wary of a militarising China and last year doubled its defence spending in response to what it said were rising threats in the Asia Pacific.
“Taiwan is caught between the US and China and its security ultimately rests on both strong relations with the US coupled with cordial relations with Beijing. The ruling DPP has shown that it can build strong relations with the US, but not China. The KMT argues it alone can do both,” Sung said.
On this last point, they may have failed, he said, by carrying out two trips to China in two separate periods of high tension between the US and China.
It is also unclear if voters will be swayed by KMT promises of soft power leverage.
Despite its preference for KMT in local elections, Taiwanese voters have in the past separated the party’s domestic strength from its international image, handing the KMT a local victory in 2018 and a full rejection on the national stage in 2020.
Perhaps paradoxically, the KMT’s trips should give hope to voters from all of Taiwan’s political parties, said Templeman, that Beijing’s door is still open, however narrowly.
Despite the sabre rattling on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing did not cancel direct flights to Taiwan — only possible since 2008 — until the global pandemic made it necessary for public health reasons, notes Templeman.
And while it has punished Taiwan with trade restrictions, it has kept them far from the tech and semiconductors trade that would cripple the island’s economy.
“The broader point is that there’s very little evidence that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has given up on the idea of peaceful unification. They would stretch the ‘peaceful’ part of this as including firing guns and rockets, maybe a little subtle coercion, but they haven’t given up on the idea that they can get Taiwan without a full-scale invasion across the Strait,” Templeman said.