Earlier this month, Taiwanese voters went to the polls to decide the future direction of their country’s historically hostile relationship with the Communist Party of China (CPC). At their hands were options to move toward some form of greater reconciliation with President Xi Jinping and his government, or for Taiwan to remain as nationally distinct as possible. On Jan. 11, the people of Taiwan emphatically decided to maintain their independence from the CPC and continue their fight for legitimacy. As a result, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won reelection amid an unusually large voter turnout and is set to continue her defense of Taiwan’s autonomy from Beijing’s far-reaching tentacles.

Tsai Ing-wen has proven to be a revolutionary figure who spoke out against a 1992 understanding reached by the CPC and the then-ruling Taiwanese government that a “one country, two systems” framework would be implemented someday, and Taiwan would not declare itself officially independent from China. Tsai Ing-wen has vocally expressed that such an agreement would not be beneficial to Taiwan. Her running mate has hinted at moving toward independence, though Tsai Ing-wen has denied having such an objective.

The ongoing protests that have rocked Hong Kong since last spring are sure to have played a prominent role in the votes of millions of Taiwanese citizens, as well as Tsai Ing-wen’s policy toward China. The months of unending civil and political unrest in the city stemmed from exactly the type of system that Taiwanese voters clearly decided to avoid. The Chinese Nationalist Party, which ran against Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party, seeks to bring Taiwan into a political framework of greater Chinese influence, satiating China’s leaders’ quest of bringing Taipei ever closer to the arms of the CPC. With the “One China” policy living on to this day, the People’s Republic of China is still trying to bring Taiwan under their control. 

In recent years, China has worked especially hard to put pressure on Taiwan and spread fear throughout the island. Beijing showed great support to Han Kuo-yu, Tsai Ing-wen’s main opponent, and has demonstrated approval for developing Chinese hegemony over Taiwan’s democratic system. 

However, China’s efforts have not been limited to political messaging. Over the past few years, the Chinese military has created a series of artificial islands in the South China Sea, actions which the government has maintained are necessary in order to defend Chinese interests. These naval installations pose a threat to any country which also claims the right to freely operate and travel in the area. This particularly includes Taiwan, which would be threatened by the proximity of China’s navy should a violent standoff arise in the future. 

The South China Sea is one of the most vital international shipping passages in the world, and if China continues its aggressive development of islands and insistence that the sea belongs solely to China, the future of free trade — not to mention Taiwanese autonomy — will be put at massive risk.

Amid this frightening geopolitical reality, Taiwanese civilians can look to Hong Kong as an example of what could happen if they accepted a slow yet decisive move toward China’s domain. In recent headlines, Taiwanese donors have supplied Hong Kong with 2,000 gas masks, air filters and helmets: an act of solidarity in the face of shared regime repression. They see the young men and women brandishing gas masks and braving police forces to stand and defend their democratic system. They witness Hong Kong’s weak leadership doing little to assuage the fears of its people. Above all, they can see the unbearable toll the protests have taken on the semi-autonomous city for nearly a year. When considering a future for their children, Taiwanese voters rejected such a path, at the end of which their high school and college students would be called upon to take on a brutal regime alone. That is not a fate that any parent would wish upon their children.

As such, Tsai Ing-wen’s reelection represents the strength and resilience of the Taiwanese people in the face of growing pressure from the CPC. She will surely face great challenges in her quest to achieve, maintain and enhance Taiwanese national identity and possibly independence, but the polls indicate that her people believe in her to advance their interests.

Going forward, it will be interesting to monitor the behavior of the U.S. vis-à-vis an empowered Taiwan and an emboldened China. For decades, the U.S. has followed Beijing’s “One China” policy, which states that countries must only have official diplomatic relations with the PRC and not the “breakaway” and “illegitimate” Chinese government of Taiwan. Yet the U.S. has quietly maintained a relationship with Taiwan, one that has included billions of dollars in arms sales, since the Taiwan Relations Act was passed by U.S. Congress in 1979. Despite the understanding reached by former President Carter with Beijing, in which U.S. Presidents did not officially speak with Taiwan’s leaders, President Donald Trump has had noteworthy contact with the Taiwanese government.

Following the Taiwanese election, countries perceived by Beijing to be getting too close to Taipei have been harshly punished. Most notably, the government in Shanghai has cut off all relations with Prague after the Czech Republic’s capital signed a sister-city agreement with Taipei and not Beijing. As a result, Trump’s policy surrounding the decades-long conflict will surely have practical implications for both the U.S. and Taiwan, especially as Trump works with President Xi to stabilize U.S.-China trade

However, the discourse surrounding Taiwan somewhat appears to be changing, for the benefit of the U.S. and Taiwan. Both because it is just, and because it can be used to curb China’s economic and political behavior, the U.S. should lead the change in the world’s approach to the island that, like Hong Kong, is simply fighting to keep its autonomy and democracy afloat.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.

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