The status of Taiwan is a puzzling and complicating factor in international politics. Although a functionally independent entity, the nation is technically under the control of China. China’s large international presence and sway in the global economy makes it a difficult country to seek independence from; other international powers struggle with which nation to side with in this debate, including the United States. Although this debate has been present for many years, the recently re-elected president has added fuel to this fire in addition to furthering a progressive social agenda for Taiwan.
Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected for a second term on January 11th of this year. Her campaign was based on upholding Taiwan’s standing democracy and retaining “freedom from China’s threats,” two tenants her Democratic Progressive Party have steadily emphasized (Shan-Jan 2020). Tsai’s election, however, also serves as another stepping stone in paving the path towards raising the status of women in the nation. Throughout her campaigns for the 2012, 2016, and 2020 elections as well as during her first term as president, Tsai faced criticism stemming from her gender. In particular, men from the opposing Kuomintang party have questioned whether or not she is a true woman given she does not have children (Shan-Jan 2020). The degrading comments against Tsai surrounding her gender are not only uncalled for, but also directed at the other women in the Taiwanese government. Taiwan’s legislature is 38% female, a relatively high percentage, yet many of these women face the same discriminatory remarks as Tsai (Shan-Jan 2020).
Despite considerable backlash, Tsai’s progressive agenda includes several initiatives focused on increasing women’s rights in Taiwan and decreasing violence against women. One example of an initiative is her “long-term care plan 2.0” which asks the government to take up responsibility of caring for the elderly (a position normally assumed by women in the family) so that women can more easily leave the home to find work elsewhere (Shan-Jan 2020). Tsai also is pushing for government surveillance of gender-based acts of violence and for the decriminalization of adultery as women are usually the convicted in these cases (Shan-Jan 2020). Tsai Ing-wen’s second term provides a brighter light at the end of the tunnel of gender equality as she could possibly serve as a role model for many Taiwanese women (Shan-Jan 2020). It will be critical to assess gender relations in Taiwan after Tsai’s presidency given her ambitious social programs.
Although addressing Tsai Ing-wen’s impact on gender equality in China is important, we also need to address the elephant in the room: the Taiwanese 2020 election influence on China-Taiwan relations. Tsai’s stance on Taiwanese independence is her most prominent marker as a politician. She is a firm supporter of Taiwan’s independence from China as she ran the majority of her campaign surrounding this concept (Shan-Jan 2020). However, it is important to understand Taiwan’s background before uncovering the real and possibly international consequences of Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election. Taiwan (Republic of China) was formed from exiled people of the Kuomintang party after the Chinese Civil War (Solomon 2016). An agreement made between Beijing and Taipei, the 1992 Consensus, unified the two nations but left many areas open to discussion (Solomon 2016). Tsai, however, has not signed off on this agreement. Her reluctance to consider Taiwan as a united territory with China has not only caused turmoil within Taiwan, but also within China: Tsai’s re-election and pro-independence party could possibly “shift Beijing’s top security concern” from smaller “territorial disputes” to keeping Taiwan as a territory (Albert 2020). Not only did Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election serve as a statement on gender equality and progressive measures in Taiwan, but also a political statement on the stance of the nation’s sovereignty.
This question of whether or not Taiwan should become independent from China is confusing to many, especially when looking at the characteristics of Taiwan itself. The nation is fully self-sufficient and, as emphasized by Thomas Carother in “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” is widely considered as one of the most successful democratization cases (2002). For one, Taiwan’s economic roots are strong—the nation even trades with China (Albert 2020). Looking specifically at elections, Taiwan is a democratic system of government that has shown participation in presidential elections (in 2012) of close to 80% (“Republic” 2020). And now, with the second election of a female president, focus on gender equality and human rights is increasing, a liberal democratic ideal (Penar 2020).
One might wonder why there is any question over whether or not Taiwan should be considered an independent country from China. When looking at the characteristics of an independent state, Taiwan checks them all: bureaucracy and established institutions, internal/external sovereignty, legitimacy, and a large population that shares a culture and desire (Orvis & Drogus 2018). This evidence of sovereignty is what Tsai Ing-wen’s political campaign is built on. She refuses to accept Taiwan as a part of China, and the Taiwanese people electing a pro-independence candidate shows their readiness for an independent nation (Babones 2020).
Taking all of these points into consideration, it’s difficult not to become skeptical if not fearful of the future of relations between Taiwan and China. It is possible that with the re-election of a pro-independence candidate that mainland China will increase its surveillance of Taiwan and possibly impose stricter regulations on the territory. This then begs the question of what kind of action will be taken by China if there is an official move towards independence by Taiwan? Although the future of China-Taiwan relations is uncertain, the re-election of Taiwan’s first female president signals the real possibility of a Taiwanese push for independence.