Written by Corey Bell.
Taiwan’s presidential elections often attract extensive media coverage in South Korea. On account of the growing volume of economic and people-to-people interaction between Taiwan and South Korea, as well as marked historical, demographic and cultural proximities between these two former Japanese colonies, many of the reports and analyses on Taiwan’s elections emanating from South Korea’s media are insightful, well informed, and arguably more multifarious in content than is the case in Western media sources. Yet like the latter, election coverage in South Korea often reflect wider concerns that changes in Taiwan’s relationship with China could have broader ramifications for security in the Northeast Asian region. While such concerns reached a crescendo following the election of the independence leaning former president Chen Shui-bien (2000 and 2004), unease has risen again in this election on account that Taiwan’s returning president, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen, bolstered her campaign by emphasising the danger that an increasingly assertive China poses to Taiwan’s independence and democracy.
While such perennial concerns have not abated, media coverage of this election in South Korea has reflecting the intensification of a new set of shared concerns among democracies in the region. These include thorny questions regarding how each nation should approach the challenge posed by China’s changing regional status and role, how countries should seek to pursue cooperation with an increasingly volatile United States, how elections and policies are being shaped by the demographic crises endemic in this region, and how traditionally protectionist economies need to manage the forces of globalism. With these topics in mind, this article provides a brief and selective wrap-up of coverage on the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election in major South Korean newspapers.
The 2020 Taiwanese election saw particularly strong coverage in two of South Korea’s most venerable newspapers – the Chosun Ilbo and the Dong-A Ilbo. Among the most prominent themes addressed in major South Korean newspapers were whether the election proved that over-reliance on an ageing voting cohort was condemning the China-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) to perennial opposition and possible extinction, how the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests may have influenced the election result and the prospects for reunification across the Taiwan Strait under Beijing’s preferred ‘one country two systems’ model, as well as how the election will likely influence the future direction of the Taiwan-U.S. (as well as Taiwan-Japan) relationship, and by extension great power (i.e., China vs U.S.) competition in the region.
The Bleak Future of the ‘China-Friendly’ KMT
The Chosun Ilbo ran a headline which charged that the mistake of ‘turning a blind eye to the anti-China sentiments’ of the increasingly important ‘youth cohort’ could condemn the 101 year old KMT to ‘eradication’ as the demographic power of voters from earlier generations declines. The article noted that reforming the party and addressing this shortcoming are likely to be pivotal to the survival of the party, however historical baggage and internal ideological conflicts leave little cause for optimism on this front. Similar charges were repeated in other articles published by the Chosun Ilbo, the Dong-A Ilbo, and in other sources.
Rejecting ‘One Country Two Systems’
The Chosun Ilbo also featured an opinion piece which claimed that on the back of the anti-extradition protests, the election of Tsai was an ‘eloquent testimony’ in support of the argument that Taiwanese society has now emphatically “rejected [the principle of having a] shared destiny with China.” Imputing that there were lessons to be drawn from this election for South Korea, the piece stated that Taiwanese are increasingly aware that “China does not have a history of treating its neighbours as equals” and “fear falling under a master-servant relationship” under the one country two systems model. On the grounds that ethnic “Chinese know China better than anyone,” the paper exhorts Korean’s to think carefully about the wisdom and potential ramifications of South Korea’s President Moon’s recent statement that “South Korea and China share a common destiny.”
This core theme that the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests had stoked more fervent anti-China sentiment among younger voters in Taiwan, and that this had played an important role in the independence leaning DPP and Tsai’s electoral success, was a common theme in South Korean coverage, as it was in Japan and in the West. The Dong-A Ilbo claimed that the election reflected growing rejection of Chinese identity in Taiwan, and posed a major setback for Beijing’s plans to peacefully reunify Taiwan with the mainland under its preferred ‘one country two systems’ model. The Seoul Shinmun noted that President Tsai’s emboldened claim that Taiwan was “already independent” had broken convention and drawn a strong rebuke from Beijing.
Taiwan-U.S. Relations and Regional Security
Yet arguably the topic that attracted the greatest attention among South Korea’s top Korean language newspapers were the ramifications of the election for Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, and, by extension, potential shifts in the strategic architecture of the region.
Noting President Tsai’s desire to “upgrade” Taiwan’s relationships with America and Japan, the Dong-A Ilbo published several articles noting that the DPP’s victory will lead to closer Taiwan-U.S. relations, and a likely increase in American arm sales to the island – a point also noted in the Kyunghang Shinmun. One opinion article published by the Dong-A Ilbo asserted that Tsai would likely increase Taiwan’s cooperation in America’s alleged “global strategy” to turn back China’s diplomatic gains and “isolate” China in the international sphere.
Yet tempering this optimism was an opinion/analysis piece in the Jungang Ilbo written by the leading Korean China policy expert and Head of the Hanyang University Institute of Chinese Studies (and the Dean of the Division of International Studies), Moon Huengho. Moon’s article broached the question as to whether Tsai’s reelection could lead to their being “one China and One Taiwan” (a phrase which recently appeared in an article penned by Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe, and which has appeared on a website run jointly by Center of Taiwan International Relations (CTIR), the Formosa Association of Public Affairs (FAPA), and the DPP’s mission in US = taiwandc.org). Drawing parallels with how the emotive issue of how antagonism between North and South Korea had infected domestic politics in Seoul, Moon claimed that Tsai’s hardline policy had cynically exploited a surge in anti-China sentiment in the wake of the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests, and in doing so ignored the limits of what is possible and practicable for Taiwan diplomatically (given the marked asymmetries between the military, economic and diplomatic power of China and Taiwan respectively). He also felt Tsai had neglected to rationally explore the opportunity costs of widening cooperation with China – an oversight which could have a deleterious impact on Taiwan’s economic, diplomatic and security status. Moon pointed out that although Taiwan does has friends in the American legislature, their support is ‘fickle’ and not reliable – especially while America continues to deny official recognition of Taiwan’s diplomatic status in order to maintain a lucrative trade relationship with Beijing. Moon concludes by asserting that on these grounds, the prospect of ‘one China one Taiwan’ being realised within the next few decades is not optimistic.
Yet countering this view is an article written by Ryu Jiyoung – a Seoul Shinum reporter and author of a semi-regular feature called ‘Homo publicas’ (political man). Ryu’s article argues that Tsai’s electoral success will likely reignite anti-china sentiments in Hong Kong – and in so doing, will likely increase America’s leverage over China. In stark contradistinction with Professor Moon’s article, this piece argues that Tsai – unlike Taiwan’s former independence-leaning DPP president Chen Shui-bian – has shown ‘strategic patience’ in dealing with China and tempering demands among her supporters for a more firm stance on Taiwanee independence, and that this has enabled Taiwan to steer clear of China’s red lines, avoid causing troubles for other stakeholders in the region, and allowed Taiwan to enjoy a much closer and more productive relationship with the United States. Ryu’s article speculates that the election result has helped China realise that its policy towards Taiwan is failing, and will most likely prompt China to move to increase economic and civil society-led forms of bilateral exchange. At the same time, Ryu feels Trump will use Taiwan’s growing self confidence and closeness with the United States to keep China ‘in check’ and leverage it on trade in the lead up to the late 2020 US presidential election.
Observers generally under-appreciate the marked historical, cultural and social similarities between South Korea and Taiwan. Both societies have strong roots in Confucian and East Asian Buddhist culture, experiences of Chinese control or suzerainty, underwent periods of Japanese colonialism through the early 20th century, followed by the rise of military dictatorships, periods of rapid growth in the late 20th century, large protest/political reform movements, before, eventually, each achieved the status of flourishing democracies. Both societies also share similarities in their institutions (i.e., legal and health care systems), demographic crises (i.e., very low birth rates), economic profiles (until recently), and experiences of antagonism with a threatening neighbour who claims to be the legitimate sovereign of their domain (i.e., China and North Korea respectively). Where similarities end, intersections begin: each state share concerns about the threat posed by a resurgent China, and – in the backdrop of this growing challenge – each are strengthening their alliances with the United States. While Taiwan’s indirect policy ‘impact’ has always been greater than its direct soft power ‘influence’ on South Korea, each time such an ‘impact’ brings Taiwan on the radar is likely to strengthen South Koreans’ awareness of these similarities and shared concerns. On this front, the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election may well come to be viewed as a watershed moment.
Corey Bell is an associate editor at Taiwan Insight.