As Tsai Ing-wen Enters Taiwan’s Presidential Race, the China Challenge Looms Large
Image Credit: Jessie Chen

As Tsai Ing-wen Enters Taiwan’s Presidential Race, the China Challenge Looms Large


Disclosure: The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.

As expected, Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on April 15 confirmed that chairperson Tsai Ing-wen would be the party’s candidate in next year’s presidential election. And just as expected, no sooner had the eight-minute press conference at the party’s headquarters in Taipei concluded than Beijing was issuing a stern reminder that relations in the Taiwan Strait could quickly sour should Tsai flirt with “splittism.” Yes, whether we like it or not, the China issue will once again be a major factor in the elections.

Tsai ran unopposed within her party and is widely seen as the strongest contender in the elections scheduled for January 16, 2016, for which the ruling—and somewhat disorganized—Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has yet to announce a candidate. President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, who has staked his entire presidency on improving ties with China, will step down next year after serving his maximum two terms.

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Tsai, the English-speaking 58-year-old graduate of NTU, Cornell, and LSE has served in various government posts over the years, with stints at the Fair Trade Commission, as minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC)—the body in charge of handling relations with China—from 2000 to 2004, and vice premier (2006-2007), among others. She is a relatively recent arrival to the DPP, only joining the party in 2004 after completing her four years as a non-partisan head of the MAC. She had previously served under the KMT administration of president Lee Teng-hui, including as consultant for the National Security Council.

Despite Tsai’s efforts in the past two years to reach out to the Chinese side using both her foundation and the DPP, Beijing’s position on the DPP and the prospects of her winning next January showed little sign of flexibility. “If [the DPP] upholds the Taiwan independence splittist position of ‘one country on either side of the [Taiwan] strait,’ then it will be hard to find a way out for cross-strait relations,” Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told a press briefing.

Given the Chinese side’s success in stacking world opinion against the DPP since 2000, Tsai’s handling of cross-strait relations in the lead-up to January 16 will be a crucial determinant of her success, just as it was in her previous effort to win the presidency in 2012. Although Ma at the time had the incumbent’s advantage, there is no doubt that Tsai’s inability to assuage fears in Washington, D.C., that a DPP administration would not be able to ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait—apprehensions that led a National Security Council official close to President Obama to “leak” damaging information to the Financial Times—also played a role in her defeat. Unfair though such meddling may have been, this is a handicap that the DPP continues to face today. We can only hope that this time around, the U.S. side will honor its commitment to neutrality in the democratic processes of its ally and ideological partner.

More specifically, the TAO spokesman was referring to the independence clause in the DPP charter, and the party’s refusal to agree to Beijing’s “one China” policy, which under Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to have dispensed with the “with different interpretations” that has been key to cross-strait exchanges in recent years. While there have been calls for the DPP to “freeze” or altogether drop the clause, Tsai argues that doing so is not necessary as Taiwan (or the Republic of China, as it is officially known) is already an independent sovereign entity. Furthermore, the party’s official position on cross-strait relations is reflected in the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future of May 8, 1999, which affirms that Taiwan is “a sovereign and independent country,” that it is not part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and whose future must be determined by the island-nation’s 23 million people.

Of course, Beijing will have none of the Resolution, as it defies its “one China” policy by stipulating the existence of “one China, one Taiwan” or—in its eyes, but far less the case among the majority of Taiwanese—“two Chinas.”

The key challenge for Tsai will stem from the so-called 1992 Consensus, a rhetorical construct which, since the year it is named after, has served as the platform upon which the two sides have engaged in negotiations. While the KMT has been perfectly happy to use the Consensus to enter into a dialogue with China—under the precondition of “one China” with each side having its own interpretation of what this means—the DPP has been reluctant to embrace it, primarily because of the “one China” component, which is sure to alienate its core constituents.

The difference of opinion on the Consensus has already been a major point of contention and a subject over which the U.S. has applied substantial pressure on the DPP. The problem now is that President Xi appears to have decided to move the goalposts on the Consensus by dropping the “different interpretations” part. In other words, the new Consensus, the sine qua non to future exchanges between the two sides, now appears to be “one China,” of which “the Mainland” and “Taiwan” are part. Whether by doing so Beijing believes it can force one party in Taiwan to agree to this “Consensus-plus” or is simply hoping to play the DPP against the KMT to force a shift in that direction is not known at this point, though the KMT has already signaled its insistence on “different interpretations.” (Its image severely undermined by last year’s Sunflower Movement and hard-to-dispel perceptions of its incautious engagement of China, the KMT will have little choice ahead of 2016 but to adopt a more careful, and therefore centrist, position on the China issue.)  What is clear, however, as Douglas Paal, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an unabashed supporter of the KMT, told a recent conference, is that Beijing’s “bottom line” in the 2016 elections will be “one China.”

With this, we have all the elements for a repeat of the pressure that was applied on Tsai in late 2011, for despite Washington’s avowed neutrality, it has made little secret of its desire for continuity in the Taiwan Strait—and continuity, thanks to Beijing’s intransigence, is predicated on the 1992 Consensus and the inherent “one China” component. It will therefore be incumbent upon the DPP candidate, who is expected to embark on a U.S. trip later this year, to convince Washington officials and think tank experts there that she is capable of ensuring continuity and stability.

It doesn’t matter that China’s position holds Taiwan hostage, that it is unfair and that it forces Taiwanese officials to agree to something that has very little public support; risk averse Washington will likely insist that Tsai must agree to the 1992 Consensus, or else…

There still might be a way out for Tsai, who has already indicated her intention to continue engaging China if she is elected. The trick will be to repackage the 1992 Consensus and to convince Washington—and the international community—that what truly matters isn’t a catchphrase (e.g., the “1992 Consensus”), but substance. If she can demonstrate that the DPP would maintain stability and promise continuity in the Taiwan Strait (while assuaging domestic fears by promising more accountability and transparency), then whatever formulation is used to describe that process doesn’t really matter. The real challenge for Tsai, therefore, will be to convince allies overseas—allies that, we must add, have the ability to throw a monkey wrench in her plans if they so desire—that the real obstacle to continuity and stability in the Taiwan Strait isn’t the DPP, but rather Beijing’s rigid insistence on symbolism (the “consensus” and “one China”).

Of course, for her to be able to do so, she will need a solid cross-strait policy and will have to explain it to her American counterparts in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation (and moreover she mustn’t wait until November to unveil it). Perhaps then can she turn the tables on Beijing and position herself as the agent of continuity, with China assuming the part of the irrational “troublemaker” for its insistence on rhetoric at the expense of substantive engagement. In other words, if Tsai can propose a policy that says, We’re perfectly capable and willing to do business with China, but unfortunately Beijing is letting rhetoric and unreasonable conditions get in the way of substance, then maybe the DPP will win a few more allies in Washington who will then pressure Beijing to come to the table, which could give Taiwan a little more wiggle room.

Xi’s apparent decision to raise the bar on “one China” could also create an opening for the DPP (or the KMT candidate, for that matter) to portray Beijing as the unreasonable party. Faced with this, Beijing would then have two choices: agree to engage the DPP despite failing to secure the preconditions on “one China,” or refuse to work with it and “punish” Taiwan economically, a risky strategy that could either harm the DPP and facilitate a KMT return in 2020, or cause a backlash among the very society whose hearts and minds it hopes to win through economic incentives. Though how Beijing would react is anyone’s guess, at least the ball would be in its camp.

There’s no such thing as an election that is won purely on domestic issues and that is especially true in Taiwan. While sound economic policies and social matters will figure prominently in the electoral campaigns, the China issue will continue to hover above it all and will retain its potential to make or break a candidate.

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