Domestic Divisions: The strait is not the only dividing line in Taiwan’s politics

It is tempting, from the vantage point of the United States, to view Taiwanese politics solely through the lens of cross-strait relations with mainland China. The tension between the island polity and its much larger sibling to across the narrow ocean, is, after all, one of Asia’s critical inheritances from history—one that has enmeshed the United States in regional geopolitics. “Free China,” although not so free until the 1990s, served as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for American geostrategic positioning in its decades-long battle with global communism from the end of World War Two onward.[1] Although that political landscape has shifted ceaselessly following the rapprochement with Red China beginning in the 1970s, Taiwan has remained, with some fluctuation, a key ally of American policy makers and erstwhile Cold Warriors in the Pacific.[2] Taiwan remains a thorn in People’s Republic of China even as the Republic of China has evolved into an important and successful democratic partner for the United States and its allies.

But to grant overwhelming centrality to cross-strait relations is to slip into solipsism. Relations with the mainland—and thus with the United States—undoubtedly remain an important factor in Taiwan’s domestic politics, and the heft of the cross-strait relationship has a gravitational pull that affects many of the Taiwan’s internal political issues, especially economic ones. Still, in order to gain a full picture of Taiwanese politics and Taiwanese elections like the recent re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) over the more conservative and China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), it’s important to grapple with the other local issues at stake in Taiwan’s flourishing democracy and to understand just what drives Taiwan’s citizens when they turn up to the polls or out into the streets. While these issues interact with mainland and greater Pacific Asian international relations, at heart they are Taiwan’s own issues. And they will continue to play an outsized role in the future of Asia’s political geography.

Some of these issues are economic: Although Taiwan grew at more 3 percent through most of 2018,[3] its growth rate has since dropped, and Taiwanese remain dissatisfied in the face of aging population pressure and greater technological competition with mainland and other foreign companies, as well as with the quality-of-life consequences of recent attempts to improve domestic competitiveness.[4] Others are societal: Taiwanese have been divided by social issues, of which same-sex equality, indigenous rights, and a restart of Taiwan’s nuclear power program are salient and representative.[5] Although the probable death knell of any “one-country, two-systems” unification sounded by the mass protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019 played a major role in incumbent Tsai’s re-election earlier this year, as the impact of the repression in Hong Kong recedes, domestic issues will affect Taiwanese politics and thus ultimately Taiwan’s orientation toward the PRC.[6] In turn, they will reverberate across Pacific Asia to the shores of the United States.

Economic Issues

With its greater than 3 percent growth in the first quarter of 2018, it looked as if Taiwan may finally have begun to shake the slump that had dragged its economy into negative growth through 2016 and 2017.[7] That growth dropped back below 2 percent in 2019, but it is expected to remain at or above 3 percent for much of 2020, still a far cry from the 5-10 percent growth it experienced in the decades before the 2008 economic crisis.[8] Although better growth should ease some of the pressure on Taiwan’s leaders, dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s economic situation remains high. Two factors, one internal and one external, will continue to put downward pressure on Taiwan’s economy, namely increasing competition from mainland Chinese companies (some of them backed by Taiwanese money) and a rapidly aging population.

President Tsai, first elected in 2016, has attempted to diversify Taiwan’s international relations in order to reduce its reliance on Chinese connections for economic growth. To that end, her DPP has tried to tighten relations with the United States, but more significantly, Tsai’s government has worked to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties to South and Southeast Asia as part of her New Southbound Policy. That strategy has been accelerated because of the China-USA trade war that has put clamps on global supply chains targeted by American President Donald Trump’s tariffs.[9] The New Southbound Policy is more than merely supply-chain and trade diversification; it also aims to strengthen cultural ties with Asia’s southern region to boost tourism and academic exchange to add fuel to Taiwan’s domestic economy.[10]

These internationalist economic changes are taking place against a background of domestic financial crisis. Taiwan’s rapidly aging population means a burgeoning retired population and an extreme financial burden on Taiwan’s government, especially if Taiwan’s low economic growth cannot be brought to an end.[11] To cope with the rising deficit required to maintain its pension program, Tsai has promised to take on a reform of the financial system. Those efforts began with two major reforms in 2016, first the introduction of amendments to Labor Standards Act aimed at making seven Taiwanese industries more competitive in the global market and boosting growth.[12] The Labor Standards reforms reduced the amount of mandatory time off and increased the amount of allowable overtime work.[13]  Those amendments have been accompanied by a set of reforms to the pension system, including reduction of pensions for Taiwan’s military, civil servants, and public school teachers.[14] Although the reductions were coupled with an increase in the monthly minimum wage by 10 percent and civil servant pay by 3 percent, despite significant public support, both reforms efforts have been deeply unpopular in some quarters, leading to mass protests, some of which turned violent.[15] It remains to be seen what effect the reforms will have on Taiwan’s economic situation, but these twin issues—competitiveness and a near-bankrupt pension system—will continue to be significant in Taiwanese politics as the population grows older.

Social Issues

Tsai was first elected upon a upswell of social activism that has continued to pressure her government to enact sweeping social reforms.[16] Although not fully onboard with many of the activist demands, Tsai’s DPP found itself in a de facto alliance with activist organizations in order to defeat the opposition nationalist Kuomintang party in 2016.[17] Tsai has made progress on some of these issues, but they are a deeply divisive in Taiwanese society, and she’s been met with anger from both activists, who say her administration has moved too tentatively on social reforms. Conservatives, meanwhile, vigorously oppose many of the changes she has promised in her campaigns.

First among them is same-sex marriage equality. During her 2016 election, Tsai became the first Taiwan presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage equality.[18] A May 2017 ruling by Taiwan’s Constitutional Court that existing laws banning same-sex equality were unconstitutional demanded a marriage equality law. Tsai’s subsequent proposed constitutional change to enshrine marriage equality, however, was pilloried from all sides.[19] The social activists who helped bring her into office decried the proposal as too slow and too conservative, while conservatives in the polity resisted the move as too radical. As the deadline for a new law approached in 2019, the DPP expedited legislation to legalize marriage equality, and Taiwan became the first Asian administration to legalize same-sex marriage. [20] Although the law’s passage won praise from activists, the fight over it demonstrates the deep fault lines through Taiwanese society regarding social issues, fault lines that will not disappear in the years ahead as activists push for new, progressive frontiers and conservatives resist.

Another such issue will be transitional justice for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, who have suffered inequity at the hands of successive administrations including imperial Japan and the KMT-aligned mainlanders fleeing the communist consolidation of the mainland. Tsai’s DPP has made transitional justice a key theme of its political alignment. In 2016, it passed legislation to deal with KMT party assets built upon indigenous property, and in August of that year Tsai became the first Taiwanese president to offer an apology for the historical treatment of the islands’ indigenous peoples. [21] Still, like marriage equality, many social activists believe Tsai’s administration is less than interested in material progress, and some of the largest protests against her administration have come from activist quarters that supported her 2016 election.[22] Land reform to compensate indigenous communities is likely to continue to be a hot and dividing issue between activists, governments, and the conservatives in the KMT.

Finally, in response to blackouts in 2017, Tsai’s administration restarted nuclear reactors after promising on the campaign trail to phase out nuclear power.[23] Anti-nuclear activism has been a key component of Taiwan’s social activism since Japan’s Fukushima disaster.[24] And so, while the go-ahead to restart won support from Taiwan’s business community, it outraged activists.[25] With climate change looming and energy solutions limited, the fight over nuclear will grow in importance in Taiwanese politics. It illustrates the fissures not just between progressives and conservatives, but environmentalists and the business community.


Despite Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 electoral victory and its repudiation of China’s heavy-handed tactics in its ethnic borderlands, Taiwanese politics do not revolve solely around cross-strait relations. Taiwan’s economic and financial situation, while tightly tied up with mainland businesses, comes with its own set of difficult domestic problems that will be central challenges—and campaign issues—for Tsai, her successor and her competitors. Economics are further complicated by energy and environmental issues such as nuclear power development that divide society along environmental- and business-biased lines. Those spheres are further fractured by divisive social faults—faults that divide progressives from conservatives, young from old, and put pressure on politicians and governments, DPP and KMT alike. Although the PRC-ROC situation dominates United States foreign policy thinking when it comes to Taiwan, these inward-facing issues will continue play an important role in Taiwanese politics. They will play a part in determining the fate of relations across the strait.

[1] Robert Green, “The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier,” The Taiwan Review (May 1, 2005).
[2] Shelly Rigger, Why Taiwan Matters.
[3] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[4] Pengqiao Lu, “Taiwan’s Biggest Problems are at Home (Not Across the Strait)”, The Diplomat (November 17, 2016).
[5] Sheryn Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On,” The East Asia Forum (December 25, 2018).
[6] The Economist Explains, “What’s at Stake in the Taiwan Election,” The Economist (January 10, 2020).
[7] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[8] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[9] Paul Huang, “‘New Southbound Policy’ Insulates Taiwan from US-China Trade War,” The Epoch Times (July 15, 2018).
[10] Dafydd Fell, “History: Taiwan,” Europa World Online (London: Routledge, 2020).
[11] Chien-Tsun Chen, “Taiwan’s Pension Crisis,” Economic and Political Weekly (Vol. LIII, No. 50: December 22, 2018).
[12] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[13] Keoni Everington, “Changes to Taiwan’s labor law go into effect today,” Taiwan News (March 01, 2018).
[14] Agence France-Presse “Taiwan Passes Bill to Cut Veterans Pensions that Sparked Violent Protests,” The South China Morning Post (June 21, 2018).
[15] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[16] Fell, “History: Taiwan.”
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ben Wescott and Angus Watson, “‘A great divide’: Inside the battle to stop same-sex marriage in Taiwan,” CNN (November 24, 2018).
[20] Julia Hollingsworth, “Taiwan legalizes same-sex marriage in historic first for Asia,” CNN (May 17, 2019).
[21] Fell, “History: Taiwan.”
[22] Thomas Reuters Foundation, “Taiwan’s indigenous people take land rights fight to the heart of the capital,” South China Morning Post (June 11, 2018).
[23] “In the Dark: A massive blackout prompts questions about Taiwan’s energy policy,” The Economist (August 17, 2017).
[24] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[25] Ibid.


Oh… Canada?

America’s northern neighbor could be the next great power

The land is broad and open, riven and pocked with fresh water, studded by trees, and shot through with veins of oil, coal, and precious rocks. Today, Canada is comfortable and safe, a thriving but middling nation with long shores, often overlooked in the shadow of the United States. Internationally, it is seen as benign and mostly harmless. And yet, because of its natural features, Canada could someday soon be one of the world’s great powers.

Much these days is made about the rise of China and the potential of India, all of it set against the backdrop of diminishing American power. “China will rule the world!” some declare.[i] “Is this the Asian century?” others ponder.[ii] But given the realities of geography and climate, demographics and institutions, the truth is probably neither. The future of global power lies to the north. Given the condition of Canada today and the likelihoods of the world tomorrow, should it choose to do so, Canada could rise to become one of the world’s great powers. Canada owns excellent geography, abutting not two but three oceans and bordering on land one (currently) friendly, wealthy country. Canada has well-established and high-functioning institutions along with a rich, educated, and relatively small population, factors that will become even more significant as natural resources diminish worldwide. Perhaps most importantly, as those global resources deplete under the dual pressures of bloating population and soaring temperatures, Canada will have the vast natural resources other nations covet: petroleum, minerals, trees, space, and most critically, fresh water. With those resources, Canada can feed its people, rev its economic engine, and stoke the fires of a war machine to keep it all secure. Forget the Asian century. Unless a great power war or quantum leap in technology rewrites history in unforeseen ways, the future may very well belong to Canada.

Before the end of the 19th century, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan gazed upon the ocean and saw a “great highway” and a “wide common.”[iii] Control over the watery lanes and fields, he realized, enables the rise of great powers. Great Britain rose to dominance with her mastery of the oceans. Insulated, unlike continental France or Holland, from the European continent and its wars, Britain developed its sea power. It built a roaring and revolutionary industrial economy on the trade enabled by maritime supremacy.[iv] Centuries later, the United States—like England separated by water from Eurasian conflict—rose out of its Civil War to do much the same. Americans poured agricultural and industrial products out along the Atlantic and Pacific “highways” to rule the global economy, the wide common, and then the world.[v] Canada could be next. At more than 200,000 kilometers, Canada’s total coastline far exceeds any other country. It runs 10 times longer than that of the United States and offers Canada easy and unblockable access to the ocean highways and commons. Isolated as it is by ice and water and bordered by the formidable but friendly United States, Canada should also remain relatively untangled from wars that might cripple other parts of the world. While Canada’s northern coastline currently hides under the arctic ice for much of the year, shrinking sea ice due to climate change is opening up arctic sea lanes and ports, giving Canada access not only to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but also to the north. Shorter travel distances and cheaper shipping on those northern routes will enable Canada to truly capitalize on its geographic advantages, especially given its dominant position over the Northwest Passage, which skirts through Canada’s northern islands and will link Canada to a thriving northern Europe.

But Geography alone can’t build a great power. Canada will need to cash in on its natural resources, exporting raw materials and industrial products at premium prices to resource-starved countries across the world. Canada has some of the most abundant natural resources on earth, including petroleum (third largest reserves in the world), coal (fifth largest), iron ore (seventh largest), potash for fertilizer (30 percent of world production), and timber (nine percent of the world’s forests).[vi] Extracting those resources and converting them into energy and industrial products won’t slow global climate change, but that won’t matter much for Canada, which is poised to benefit from a warming climate. According to one major study, in economic terms alone, by 2100 climate change will have added to 247 percent to Canada’s already top-10 gross domestic product; only Russia and some of the Nordic countries are poised to do better.[vii] As the Yangtze, Indus, and Mekong run dry and spark potentially catastrophic conflict among nuclear-armed powers in Asia, Canada’s rivers, lakes, and aquifers—making up some 20 percent of total global fresh water—will provide the lifeblood of Canada’s great power rise. While the drying world scorches under higher temperatures that reduce arable land to deserts, Canada’s frozen forests will transform (partly because of ferocious wildfires) into productive agricultural prairie just as its arctic ports open up. As it has throughout history, the pace of uneven economic growth enabled by these changes will have a large and positive long-term impact on Canada’s relative power. Furthermore, contrary to accepted wisdom, Canada’s diminutive population could also multiply its economic advantages. Small enough to not tax an already-stressed natural environment, Canada’s population size and open landscape also allow room to accommodate immigrants who can contribute to Canada’s economy and add their expertise to its intellectual and technological development. As a result, Canada should have much more than an abundance of resources; it will have the bountiful brainpower with which to engineer and manufacture the machines of industry, agriculture, trade, and war.

It will likely need those machines, too, not only to link its ports to the world and power its economic engine. Canada will need to fight off jealous, resource-hungry competitors. Canada currently spends only about 1 percent of its $1.65 trillion GDP on the military. But with practical experience in recent wars and some of the world’s most advanced equipment, observers still rank Canada’s military among the world’s top 20,[viii] despite the government spending much less on guns and much more on butter. The result is a serviceable military and a prosperous state managed by some of the least corrupt institutions on earth.[ix] Those functional institutions set up Canada to take maximum advantage of the future economic growth and allocate its cornucopia appropriately, balancing the needs of the population with the needs of the military. Although Canada’s armed forces don’t currently cause potential rivals to quake, history shows that the rise of great powers—and the outcome of great wars—depends less on current military power, and more on  potential productive capacity.[x] Just as Britain outdid France and Germany, and America outpaced Japan and the Soviet Union, Canada will have the resources, the productive capacity, the know-how, and the well-oiled institutions to rapidly transform its military into a potent force. The future distribution of military power will follow the shift in the productive balances. Canada, with greater productive capacity than its rivals because of its geography, natural endowment, and beneficial effects of climate change, should be able to win a great power war and survive the struggle for resources and power.

In a world of constantly shifting relative power, the future is never certain. Wars, catastrophes, and technological leaps reshape the world in unpredictable ways. But if the past is a guide and forecasts about the effects of climate change hold true, Canada will have the geography, resources, institutions, and productive capacity to leapfrog to great power status. It simply must have the chutzpah to do so. Global policymakers should take note: The future belongs to North America.

[i] Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (Penguin Books: New York, New York, 2012).
[ii] Jong-Wha Lee, Is This the Asian Century? (World Scientific Publishing Company: Singapore, 2017).
[iii] A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1890), 25.
[iv] England’s industrial output made up nearly 20 percent of the world total in 1860.
[v] American national income ($37 billion) was three times larger than its nearest competitors, Germany ($12 billion) and England ($11 billion), in 1914.
[vi] Government of Canada, “Natural Resources Canada”,
[vii] Marshall Burke, Solomon M. Hsiang, and Edward Miguel, “Global, non-linear effect of temperature on economic production,” Nature (Oct. 15, 2015).
[viii] Global Firepower, “2019 Global Firepower Rankings,”
[ix] Transparency International, “2018 Global Corruption Index”,
[x] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House: New York, 1987).