Tsai Ing-wen’s Limited Options on Cross-Strait Relations

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Tsai Ing-wen’s Limited Options on Cross-Strait Relations

Domestic, economic, and geopolitical realities will hamper Tsai’s ability to craft cross-strait policy.

Tsai Ing-wen’s Limited Options on Cross-Strait Relations

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and president-elect Tsai Ing-wen shouts slogans as she greets supporters after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, January 16, 2016.

Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Recently talking with a dozen people deeply involved in cross-strait relations in Taipei, Taiwan suggests that President-elect Tsai Ing-wen will have very limited room to maneuver when it comes to handling relations with Beijing. The first test will come on May 20, the day of her inauguration, when she is expected to lay down the framework for her approach to Beijing.

At the core of Tsai’s challenge is how to respond to Beijing’s insistence that she confirm the so-called “1992 consensus” as the political foundation for cross-strait relations. The “1992 Consensus” is a loosely agreed upon principle advanced by Beijing and Taiwan under the Nationalist (KMT) government at the time that allows both sides to claim that there is one China but gives them discretion to define what that “one China” refers to. In diplomatic terms, it is an example of agreeing to disagree.

Logically, Tsai has little incentive to cave in to Beijing’s demand. In the 2012 election, Tsai lost to Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT leader and incumbent president, by 5 percent. Many of her key advisors attributed the failure to complete the “last mile” of the election to voters’ uneasiness about the DPP’s position on cross-strait relations. This time, Tsai defeated her two opponents combined by more than 12 percent without even focusing on the cross-strait relationship. As one Taiwanese analyst said in a recent conversation, why would Tsai even consider radically altering the DPP’s positions on cross-strait relations by embracing the “1992 Consensus” the same way the KMT did under Ma’s leadership?

The problem, as many Taiwanese analysts are keenly aware, is that the balance of power has shifted decisively in Beijing’s favor, especially on the economic side, some 25 years after the beginning of the cross-strait thaw. To kick-start a stagnant economy, Tsai has proposed plans ranging from revitalizing Taiwan’s manufacturing capacity to orienting trade more toward Southeast Asian countries and seeking new opportunities through active participation in new trade regimes such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, all of these plans take time and none of them can easily offset the negative impact should economic ties with Mainland China sour as a result of a deteriorating political environment.

In addition, Tsai has anchored her election promises on increasing jobs and wages for the young, better care for the elderly, and more balanced development for regions beyond the Greater Taipei area. She also promised to reign in the increase of government debt to no more than the average GDP growth rate of the previous three years. With such an ambitious social and economic agenda with limited spare resources, Tsai can hardly afford any distractions, much less a full-scale downgrade of economic ties with Beijing.

Politically, there is little question that Tsai has so far enjoyed far greater control internally than either Ma or Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president from 2000 to 2008, ever amassed. Still, beyond the façade of unity, Tsai’s distractors are many. An estimated 20 percent of DPP members are considered to be “deep-green,”* a label reserved for those who fiercely oppose any compromise with Beijing that threatens Taiwan’s de facto independence. A radical departure by Tsai on her declared position on cross-strait relations would open her to not only strong opposition within DPP but the possibility that some DPP factional leaders, resentful of being sidelined in the recent election or during the post-election job hunt, might use the fissure to regroup and revive the traditional factional politics that Tsai has managed to suppress the last few years. With the large margin of victory in the Legislative Yuan and the popular support she enjoyed, Tsai has considerable latitude to adjust certain policies, even those long treasured by the DPP. However, to do so will almost certainly cost her a great deal of political capital, which she will need to fulfill her many campaign promises. This is not to mention that there are critical areas where Tsai is still untested or has questionable control. Prominent examples include her command of key institutions long dominated by the Nationalist Party, such as the military and security apparatus.

Tsai’s ability to handle relations with Beijing is also heavily influenced by one particular external actor: Washington. In this respect, Tsai’s room to maneuver over Mainland policy is even more constrained than the already-narrow latitude she has economically and politically at home. The United States now clearly regards China as an emerging threat given the latter’s military modernization and assertive actions in South China Sea. However, the United States is either unwilling or unable to take on China in an all-out fashion. As a result, Washington is pursuing a dual “hands-on and hands-off” approach vis-à-vis Taiwan’s relations with Beijing: It openly tells both Beijing and Taiwan that as long as peace and stability can be maintained in their mutual relations, it sees no need for the United States to interfere one way or another. On the other hand, Washington is clearly monitoring any moves by Taiwan’s new government very closely and will not hesitate to draw the line in the sand if it believes that Taiwan is moving beyond certain parameters. It will take a great deal of political skill for Tsai to maneuver on the narrow path allowed in cross-strait relations, a path defined not by Taiwan but by the United States.

Tsai’s personal leadership style is likely to play a key role in deciding the pace and method of what is emerging as Tsai’s Mainland policy. According to Taiwanese analysts who spoke with us, Tsai is said to have a rather different leadership style than her predecessors. She likes to listen to people working for her without revealing her personal preferences, but can make decisive decisions and stick with them once they are made. She is reportedly low-key, prudent, and careful, not showing much emotion, and always comes across as well prepared, although she is not considered to be a workaholic in the mold of Chen Shui-bian. She likes to be seen as even-handed, focusing less on political loyalty than competency in selecting staff or granting access. When she talks, she speaks precisely and consistently without going overboard in making her points. Some of these personal traits may reflect her academic training and long experience as an international negotiator; they also highlight the fact that when she was elected in January this year, she had had at least eight years to prepare for the position. She has the advantage of having carefully studied and learned the lessons from the successes and failures of her predecessors. Either way, one of the few certainties that have emerged from the last few months of Taiwan’s power transition is that, when comes to handling major policy issues such as cross-strait relations, one can expect a far more steady and consistent hand from Tsai.

It is rather telling that just four days after her election victory, Tsai had already laid out what she views as the political foundation of cross-strait relations: 1) The historical fact of the 1992 talks, in which both sides agreed to seek common ground while reserving differences; 2) the current constitutional framework of the Republic of Taiwan; 3) the results of cross-strait negotiations, exchanges, and interactions over more than two decades; and 4) the democratic principle and general public opinion of Taiwan. She has not departed much from these statements in the months since, although she did try to send a number of signals to show her eagerness to seek a stable relationship with Beijing. For example, an examination of the first two dozen cabinet-level appointments shows a trend of using pragmatic and business-like officials at the expense of those who are viewed as too ideological or pro-independence. It is Tsai’s signal to Beijing that she wants to put her money where her mouth is when it comes to her assurances on maintaining the status quo. She may send a few more such signals before or on May 20 to assuage Beijing, yet it is highly unlikely though that she will go as far as to openly embrace the “1992 consensus.”

So what’s next? There is a general pessimism among the people we talked to in Taiwan on the prospect of Tsai managing to put relations with Beijing on a positive footing on or immediately after her inauguration. Indeed, much of the conversations centered on the possibility of a barrage of punitive measures that Beijing might unleash, including a diplomatic squeeze and economic sanctions, and how Taiwan might respond if that happens. Given Tsai’s limited maneuverability and Beijing’s long-held suspicions of the intention and actions of the DPP and Tsai, one may well see cross-strait relations as a non-starter from the very beginning of this historical moment for Taiwan and for its relations with the Mainland.

On the other hand, pessimism doesn’t propel history; optimism does. Precisely because Tsai has limited room to maneuver, it becomes all the more urgent and critical for her to seize her inauguration and the first few months in office as a window of opportunity to carve out and focus on a few “zones” where the perceived interests of both sides overlap. For example, Tsai may stress, in her inaugural speech, the cultural and ethical affinity of people living on the two sides of the Strait and the need to defend the territorial integrity defined by the current Constitution of the ROC, while ruling out a major shift in Mainland policy under her watch.

These words and deeds alone are unlikely to completely satisfy Beijing, but they can at least help to remove some of Beijing’s deepest worries and buy her some time and space for both sides to get to know each other better and search for new rules of engagement. The latter, by the way, entails an open channel of communication, something more important in cross-strait relations today than at any time before.

The limited maneuverability speaks volume of Tsai’s plight in handling relations with Beijing; it highlights the dilemma Beijing faces too. With no alternative to Tsai in sight, if Beijing adopts a “take it or leave it” approach in reacting to any Tsai’s stance or statements on cross-strait relations, it may well backfire – the PRC could deprive Tsai of whatever room she still has to come up with an approach to Beijing that, stripped of all pretense, may not differ fundamentally from what the KMT government has adopted while being viable enough for Tsai given the new political ecology in Taiwan. If so, one may see a prolong period of chill in cross-strait relations and a replay of the Chen Shui-bian era, which saw the rampant increase of pro-independence forces and activities.

“The national reunification we advocate,” Xi Jinping once said, “is not merely unification in form, but more importantly, a spiritual connection between the two sides.” From that point of view, it would be in Beijing’s best interests to embrace a “give and take” approach instead of a “take it or leave it” approach. The former will provide Tsai with enough time and space to prove that she meant it when she said that she will go beyond partisanship to ensure the status quo of peace and stability in cross-strait relations.

Zhimin Lin is associate professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration of University of Macau. Jianwei Wang is professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration of University of Macau.

*A previous version of this story referred to elements of the DPP as “deep-blue” rather than “deep-green.” The Diplomat regrets the error.