China’s Soft-Power Offensive in Taiwan

TOKYO – China’s behavior during the recent presidential election in Taiwan demonstrates that its leaders have learned some lessons, if only the hard way. They have learned that China can have a greater impact on Taiwanese voters through trade and making people feel richer than by threats – even threats to fire missiles – which had been China’s electoral tactics in previous Taiwanese elections, particularly when a pro-independence candidate looked popular enough to win.

Indeed, fearing the popularity of Lee Teng-hui, who ran in the 1996 presidential election on a pro-independence platform, China’s People’s Liberation Army actually fired missiles close to the nearby coast of Keelung. But this saber rattling backfired. Lee won.

The presidential election on January 14 was the first of the transfers of power in China and Taiwan that will take place this year. Later this year, China’s President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will be succeeded by men chosen by the Communist Party long ago. Avoiding new tension with Taiwan appears to have been a calculated decision by China’s leaders as they begin their own – perhaps not yet fully settled – changing of the guard.

For almost two decades, Taiwan’s presidential elections have attracted global attention not only for the robustness of Taiwan’s democratic culture, but also for the perennial question of whether the winner would seek formal independence for Taiwan. This time, Tsai Ing-wen, the woman nominated by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), mounted a late charge on the Kuomintang incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou. But China did not bluster as Tsai surged in the polls.