China is keeping its eyes peeled on the Taiwan election, which could send shockwaves across Beijing and even Washington.
The island nation’s 23 million citizens will flock to the polls this Saturday to elect their next president.
In the last eight years, relations with China have thawed under President Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) following decades of tension. The two countries have also signed off to several economic agreements over the years.
All that could take a shift this weekend.
Dominating the polls in recent months is the independence-leaning Tsai ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Although Tsai has agreed to maintain the status-quo toward China if elected, she has never accepted the “1992 Consensus,” a document which declares Taiwan is part of China.
After the communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the nationalists fled to Taiwan. However, Beijing still considers Taiwan a breakaway province and it has never taken military force off the table as an option toward reunification—something President Xi Jinping calls a “historical inevitability.”
In fact, Xi warned last year that the “earth will move and mountains will shake” if Taipei takes any steps toward independence.
Several of Tsai’s supporters, especially the younger ones, share sentiment for independence.
“My main priorities are national rights and Taiwan independence,” said interior designer Marcus Chen, 39, in an interview with USA Today.
Liu Shih-Chung, former president of the Taipei-based think tank Taiwan Brain Trust says the identity of an independent Taiwan is strong among young voters.
“Young voters have the strong belief that Taiwan is an independent and sovereign country,” she tells USA Today. “It’s a natural thing for them. They have no real idea about the history of Taiwan and China.”
Nonetheless, several Tsai supporters are putting geopolitics on the backburner and focusing on more immediate issues when they head to the polls: the economy.
Taiwan’s economy grew by just 1 percent last year and wages have remained stagnant for 15 years.
“I care about high prices for houses and low salaries,” said piano teacher Yi-Hsin Wang.
But, the consequences of the Taiwanese election won’t just affect China. Washington is also keeping a close eye.
The U.S. certainly doesn’t want a Tsai victory to spell any serious tension in the region.
The Obama Administration already is facing soured relations with its trading partner over cyber crime, the behavior of China’s ally North Korea, and China’s massive land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea.
Aside from a militaristic response, however, Xi can also launch economic blows at Taiwan if it pushes closer toward independence following the election.
Beijing can ban mainland tourist visits to Taiwan further isolating Taipei diplomatically.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points to other options, however.
“If you’re sitting on the mainland, you don’t want to ever have to take Taiwan by force,” she tells USA Today. That’s a bad outcome, though of course they’d never rule it out. I would not be very surprised if there was a bit of a rethink about how they should modify their approach, so that they can put this cross-strait relationship on a trajectory of moving closer instead of moving farther apart.”