During an interview following her 2020 presidential win, Tsai Ing-wen was asked a question, one that analysts around the world frequently ponder: What would happen if she were to formally declare Taiwanese independence? Tsai responded in her typical, pragmatic fashion: “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already.” But the logic of this theoretical question – that the president of Taiwan can unilaterally change Taiwan’s status – is misleading.
Contrary to the attention paid to which party Taiwan’s president is from, the actual power to change Taiwan’s status does not lie with the president, but rather with the Taiwanese people.
So long as Taiwan remains a democratic country, a unilateral declaration of independence from a Taiwanese president is not going to happen. Here is why.
First, and most importantly, Taiwan has strong institutions with rules and regulations for constitutional change. The president does not have the power personally to change the constitution. Constitutional change is an established process that goes through multiple levels of governmental review before being voted on by elected officials.
For a president to unilaterally change the fate of Taiwan would be akin to an authoritarian power grab that would forgo all of Taiwan’s established democratic institutions, which neither the Kuomintang (KMT) nor the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is able to do.
The DPP: Tethered to Public Opinion
Tsai Ing-wen herself is neither radical nor irrational enough to attempt a unilateral change of Taiwan’s status. She has expressly said that “only the majority public opinion can decide Taiwan’s future and cross-strait relations.” In her six years in office, Tsai has neither backed nor proposed any policy or plan that would formally change Taiwan’s constitution or national status. Fears of her doing so are unfounded and play into Beijing’s propaganda.
As for the DPP itself, the party has pledged in its charter not to declare independence, and that any change to Taiwan’s status must be decided by Taiwanese citizens, not the party. Specifically, the DPP’s official stance on Taiwan’s future comes from the 1999 “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future”:
Taiwan is a sovereign and independent state, any changes made to its current independent status must be done through public vote in which all Taiwanese citizens have a say.
What do most Taiwanese want? Polling shows overwhelmingly that they do not want immediate independence. Independence versus unification issues are the key decider of elections, with people voting for the party that they think would be able to avoid an immediate threat to Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty.
This cuts both ways. The DPP stands to lose – as it did in 2008 – if its advocacy for independence is viewed as too provocative toward China. The same goes for the KMT if it is viewed as endangering Taiwan’s sovereignty by facilitating closer political ties with China.
What About Tsai’s Successor?
Neither extreme independence nor extreme unification is a viable path to victory in Taiwanese politics. This is something that the DPP would be wise to remember when it considers who will run for president in 2024, when Tsai’s second term ends.
William Lai, Tsai’s former premier and current vice president, is the current frontrunner. Lai’s presidential ambitions are well known. He challenged Tsai during the 2019 DPP primary, almost leading to a party split. But Tsai successfully unified the party and, given its strong position today, is likely to lead the DPP into a strong 2024 election.
What remains unclear about Lai is his inconsistent stance on independence. When he served as Tainan mayor, he was openly pro-independence; when he became Tsai’s premier in 2016, he changed to declaring Taiwan to already be independent, asserting that no further action was needed – a more pro-status quo stance. Lai then created further ambiguity by declaring himself to be in support of a position that is “close to China, but loves Taiwan” (親中愛台), upsetting some pro-independence supporters, although he continues to enjoy their support broadly.
The question thus remains whether Lai will remain pro-status quo in some form or return to his pro-independence roots.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that Lai, if elected, is still just as unlikely to unilaterally declare independence as Tsai is today. Unless opinion polls radically change in the next three years, Taiwanese public opinion will remain firmly in favor of the status quo, which aims to avoid conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
What About the KMT?
If the KMT manages to regain power again, as in 2008, it would be just as unable to unilaterally declare unification without a blatant and illegal return to its authoritarian roots – something that would trigger public resistance, as observed in the flare-up of the 2014 Sunflower Movement over a trade deal with China that that the party intended to pass.
Even when the KMT’s power peaked with control over both the presidency and the legislature, there was not enough political will or public support to even hint at a push toward unification. The closest the KMT came to a new cross-strait understanding was the 2015 Ma-Xi meeting, which resulted in no policy changes and only fueled anti-KMT sentiment in Taiwan.
The KMT has faced an internal crisis since 2016. The party is cognizant of how it has lost the support of young Taiwanese and various other sectors of the public. Although some have called for the party to reform and change its pro-China image to win back support, others in the party have called for a return to party fundamentals and doubling down on calls for unification and an emphasis on Chinese identity.
The party is so entangled in debates over the 1992 Consensus that much of the KMT’s internal debates do not even discuss unification. Instead, it is devoted to re-framing the party in a more Taiwan-centric way that still appeals enough to Beijing to normalize relations.
There is a reason why the KMT has been unable to advance beyond the 1992 Consensus: It was the last formula for managing cross-strait relations that allowed the KMT to attract the support of the public and successfully win democratic elections. With no alternatives, the party continues to cling desperately to the 1992 Consensus because it cannot shrug off the will of the public in order to maintain viability in future elections.
Even though the KMT does not seem to be in an electorally strong position, it is worth remembering that it tied the DPP in the party vote – the proportional representation mechanism by which citizens cast votes for a party of their choice to decide legislative seats – in 2020. Its hardline 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, while unsuccessful, still far outperformed Eric Chu’s run in 2016.
A single leader cannot make Taiwan independent or unify it with the People Republic of China. Despite Taiwan’s recent rise in international prominence and growing concerns over whether the DPP will make a unilateral move, we should not forget that Taiwan is a democracy with rules, institutions, and formalities. We should also remember that Taiwanese do not want immediate independence and value an uncomfortable peace over war.
Worries about changes to the geopolitical realities of the Taiwan Strait should instead focus on those actively militarizing cross-strait relations and not those who are bound by democratic rules and laws.