Taiwan's elections last Saturday may be local ones for city and county heads, but their results have wider repercussions, casting uncertainty anew on one of Asia's potential flashpoints: China- Taiwan relations. Cross-strait ties have been improving steadily in recent years with Taiwan under the rule of the China-friendly Kuomintang. But the KMT's routing by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party has weakened it considerably, increasing the possibility of KMT losing power to the DPP in the 2016 presidential poll.
In the circumstances, one would not blame China for being uneasy about the growing clout of the DPP. Tensions were heightened between Beijing and Taipei during the DPP's tenure from 2000 to 2008. China's strategy of drawing Taiwan - which it regards as a breakaway province - closer through economic links will be challenged by the winds of change. Did Beijing misread the political impulses of the young in Taiwan as it did in Hong Kong?
President Ma Ying-jeou ought to have known that trying to push through a cross-strait trade pact without sufficient debate would heighten the electorate's fears that the island's economy might be overwhelmed by China. Taiwanese have cause to feel jumpy with growing income inequality, stagnating wages, high youth unemployment and soaring housing costs which have all emerged under President Ma's watch. Real wages have fallen below 1998 levels while housing prices have spiked by 82 per cent since 2008. Taiwanese blame the latter on mainland Chinese who are allowed to buy Taiwanese homes under the KMT's more liberal cross-strait policies.
Ground support is an aspect of a giant's embrace that might also dawn on other countries in the region over time, notwithstanding the promise of huge trade and investment benefits that a resurgent China can offer. Consider the anxiety of the Taiwanese over the impact of the services trade pact signed between the two sides and the planned trade in goods deal. In March, students occupied the legislature to protest against the services pact, citing fears not just of competition for Taiwanese businesses but also of the implications of any reunification pressure - doubts stoked by Beijing's handling of Hong Kong students' demand for democracy.
China's immediate response to the poll results has been muted. Patience will pay off in charting a post-KMT strategy - a crucial test of President Xi Jinping's softer approach to foreign policy. Bristling at Taiwanese voters could lead to a downward spiral in cross-strait ties. Beijing should instead stay focused on seeking peaceful reunification by engaging the DPP and different sectors of the island's economy and society.