The 2020 Taiwanese Election and What It Means for Taiwan by Jason Wu

Jason Wu is a Freshman at Tufts University. 

Photo: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. in 2016.

As the clock counted down in the final hours of the 2020 election, it soon became clear who would lead Taiwan for four more years. With over 8.1 million popular votes (57.13%) [1], incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated her Kuomintang (KMT) rival Han Kuo-yu (5.5 million votes, 38.61%) and secured her presidential seat. What does Tsai’s reelection mean for Taiwan, its relations with China, and its status in the region? 

For those who are unfamiliar with Taiwan and its politics, Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), governed separately from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the Mainland. Ever since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, relations between the island and the Mainland have remained hostile. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Taiwan has been under tight control under the KMT’s rule until its democratization, which transformed Taiwan into the multi-party system country today (albeit a multi-party system mainly dominated by the pro-China KMT and pro-independence DPP). While Taiwan renounced its long-standing goal to “reclaim the Mainland” in the 1990s, China’s ambition for national unification never perished. As China’s economic and military strength developed rapidly, Taiwan’s struggle for survival further intensified. 

With Tsai Ing-wen reelected as the president, Taiwan will further pursue military capabilities to deter aggression from the Mainland. As outlined in her speech during 2019’s National Holiday celebrations, Tsai vowed to achieve further self-sufficiency on national defense. One of the main aspects of this national defense project that Tsai has been pushing is the Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) policy, a response to Taiwan’s inability to purchase advanced submarines from other countries. Although the concept originated during President Ma’s administration in 2014, it was not until Tsai that the policy was put into action in 2017. According to Tsai’s government, the domestically built submarines will be undergoing sea trials by 2024 [2]. Based on her defense heavy focus thus far, it is likely that Tsai will continue to pursue other national defense policies in her second term. Under her administration, Taiwan’s national defense increased 5.2% to NT$358 billion (US$11.4 billion) in 2020 alone as she outlined a 10-year budget plan aimed at breaking NT$421.8 billion by 2029 [3]. Furthermore, military purchases from the United States reached a record level under Tsai’s administration with acquisitions of new F-16 fighter jets and M1A2 main battle tanks. 

Not only will Taiwan embark on a path of military self-sufficiency, under Tsai’s continued rule, Taiwan will also move further away from economic dependency on China. In the past, Taiwan’s tourism industry has been largely fueled by the influx of Mainland Chinese tourists, which accounted for roughly 30% of all tourists, since the loosening of visa restrictions in 2008 [4]. Under Tsai’s government, the bitter tensions between Taipei and the Beijing has prompted Beijing to suspend tour groups from traveling to the island. Although the decrease of Chinese tourists poses risks to Taiwan’s economy as a whole, this has inadvertently led Taiwan to diversify its sources of revenue for its tourism industry. In fact, it has already been doing so by loosening regulations for visitors from South Korea and South East Asia. In addition, Taishang (literal translation: Taiwanese merchants), which includes almost all of the major Taiwanese corporations currently doing business in the Mainland, may be subjected to regulations and punishments if tensions escalate between Taipei and Beijing in the future. With Tsai in office, the chances of Taishang taking a hit in the Mainland Chinese market are not impossible. 

Finally, Tsai’s victory may be a trigger for further diplomatic pressure and isolation tactics from Beijing. The 2020 Election results delivered a clear message to Beijing that after witnessing the failure of “One Country Two Systems” in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese people are defiant against any unification attempts. Although this election reflects a growing consensus and unity amongst the Taiwanese people, it invites Beijing to pursue tougher measures against Taiwan. During Tsai’s first term of presidency, Taiwan lost 7 of its official diplomatic relationships as a result of Beijing’s isolation tactics. As the anti-unification messages translate into policies under Tsai’s administration, it is highly likely that Taiwan will find difficulty in securing its 15 remaining official diplomatic partners. 

Tsai Ing-wen’s decisive victory in the 2020 Election reflects Taiwan’s growing determination to reject any attempt of unification from Beijing. Of course, such path will inevitably result in escalation between the two governments. Nevertheless, it is up to Tsai which path Taiwan should take in order to serve its own interests in this ever-complicated political arena. 

[1] https://db.cec.gov.tw/histQuery.jsp?voteCode=20200101P1A1&qryType=ctks

[2] https://thediplomat.com/2019/11/taiwans-difficult-yet-viable-indigenous-submarine-project-needs-cross-party-support/

[3] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3006264/taiwan-boosts-defence-10-year-military-spending-plan

[4] https://www.npf.org.tw/3/21564