The Presidential Office Building in Taipei isn’t easily mistaken for other buildings – it’s an ornate Baroque-style structure that dates back to 1919 and is capped by a 200-foot-tall tower.
In July, China held a military exercise that included an assault on a building that – based on video from the mainland – closely resembled the presidential offices in Taipei.
Overnight, the anxiety thermostat in Taiwan spiked. Many saw it as evidence that a real military invasion of their island could be in the works.
“There was a building that looked exactly like our president’s office!” Hsia Li-yan, minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, said in a recent interview. “What else could I think?”
Relations between Taiwan and China are less volatile than they were a decade ago, and strong economic ties serve as a hedge against hostilities. Yet the status quo could be shaken as soon as January, when Taiwan voters elect a new president.
Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party escaped to Taiwan in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War, Beijing and Taipei have engaged in a delicate dance. Both claim to be the rightful rulers of China.
Recent polls indicate a possible landslide victory for Tsai Ing-wen, who heads the Democratic Progressive Party and is far less friendly to Beijing than Taiwan’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party.
On the mainland, China’s leaders already have made clear that they would treat Tsai’s election as an affront. “All things we have achieved now could collapse,” Zhang Zhijun, director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said earlier this year.
Tensions between Taiwan and China used to be one of the world’s dominant concerns, with the United States vowing to thwart any effort by China to capture the final outpost of the Chinese Nationalist leaders who fled here from the mainland in 1949 after the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party.
There is ample reason to be concerned that a future conflict could escalate to a limited nuclear conflict.
Adam Lowther and Alex Littlefield, military strategists
Over the last decade, however, Taiwan has slipped off the international radar, partly because of China’s enormous economic shadow but also because of Beijing’s effectiveness in isolating Taiwan and preventing other countries from building ties with it.
This month, the Pew Research Center released poll results on the U.S. public’s top concerns about China. Only 21 percent of those surveyed listed “tensions between China and Taiwan” as a top worry, with a majority more concerned about U.S. debt held by China, supposed job losses to China and cyber attacks.
Many military analysts, however, continue to see the Taiwan Straits as Asia’s most likely flashpoint for a military conflict that would draw in the U.S. military. China still has more than 1,400 missiles pointed at Taiwan and has refused to rule out the use of force against the island, especially if Taiwan were to seriously assert a claim to not being part of China.
Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party escaped to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War, Beijing and Taipei have engaged in a delicate – sometimes dangerous – dance. Neither side officially recognizes the other and both claim to be the rightful rulers of China. In 1995 and 1996, China fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan in the run-up to the island’s first democratic elections.
The relationship’s dysfunction is reflected in the 1992 Consensus, under which China and Taiwan agreed there would one day be “one China,” although under varying interpretations of what that government might look like.
Over the last eight years, President Ma has continued to support the 1992 Consensus, which has kept Beijing mostly happy. But in recent years, Taiwan and its 23 million people have been undergoing an identity shift. Younger voters have become less likely to identify themselves as Chinese, preferring to see themselves as “Taiwanese.”
We try not to put all of our eggs in one basket, but mainland China is such a huge basket.
Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president
“There’s been a generational change,” said Lin Jih-wen, director of the Institute of Political Science at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica. The result, he said, has been a dramatic shift in public attitudes and protests against the ruling Nationalist government.
Early last year, student protesters stormed Taiwan’s legislative building and executive offices, protesting against a trade pact with China supported by the Nationalist government. The group, which has been successful in blocking ratification of the treaty, has become known as the Sunflower Student Movement, using sunflowers as a symbol of hope.
More recently, students have protested against changes in history textbooks sought by the Nationalist government. Protesters charge those changes are designed to curry favor with Beijing by portraying the post-1949 mainland in a more favorable light.
Lin, the Academia Sinica political scientist, said that much of the generational angst stems from Taiwan’s economic situation. From the 1990s onward, Taiwan boomed by making high-end electronics components for final assembly on the mainland.
But as China’s growth engine has slowed, Taiwan’s economy has taken a hit. Since 2010, the country’s gross domestic product growth has dropped from over 12 percent to under 4 percent last year. Many people have concluded their country is far too dependent on trade with the mainland.
In an interview last month, President Ma ticked off a list of achievements during his eight years, including more stable relations with the mainland. He acknowledged Taiwan’s economy needs to diversify, but he defended his efforts to promote cross-straits trade and investment.
“We try not to put all of our eggs in one basket, but mainland China is such a huge basket,” Ma said during a meeting at the Presidential Office Building with reporters from McClatchy, the Los Angeles Times and the Globe and Mail. “So it is impossible not to put any eggs in it.”
Ma, born in Hong Kong in 1950, comes from a family that escaped to Taiwan from China’s Hunan province after the civil war. He served as justice minister and Taipei mayor before winning the presidency in 2008 with more than 58 percent of the vote. Four years later, he was re-elected after narrowly beating Tsai. His popularity has since waned amid public concerns over the economy and student demonstrations.
Asked about those protests, Ma responded that not all students are in sync with the Sunflower Movement. “Maybe some of the silent majority do not express their views, but it does not mean that they agree with these students,” said Ma, throwing in a term that U.S. President Richard Nixon popularized in a 1969 speech.
Just six months ago, the main media focus of the upcoming Jan. 16 election in Taiwan involved gender issues. Both Tsai and her Nationalist Party opponent, former teacher Hung Hsiu-chu, are women, leading many to conclude that Taiwan would elect its first female president.
But despite her nickname of “Little Hot Pepper,” Hung has shown herself to be an erratic and uninspiring candidate, adding to the splits in the Nationalist Party. Last month, with Hung 20 points behind Tsai in opinion polls, a veteran Nationalist Party politician, James Soong, jumped into the race as part of the People First Party.
Polls quickly showed Soong jumping to No. 2 in the race. That’s led to speculation that Soong and Hung, who have similar views on cross-straits relations, may join forces, with Soong as the presidential candidate.
Although economic issues dominate the race, Soong has sought to persuade voters that political stability is essential for Taiwan to grow new jobs. His lieutenants, meanwhile, are reminding anyone who will listen that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party rose to power with provocative rhetoric about future independence, which infuriated Beijing.
“Mainland China recognizes the reality of Taiwan politics,” said Chang Chau-hsiung, a retired doctor who is vice chairman of Taiwan’s People First Party. “But they will not tolerate declaration or discussion of independence.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth