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Can the US Trust Ko Wen-je’s Pragmatism?

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Can the US Trust Ko Wen-je’s Pragmatism?

TPP Chairman Ko Wen-je touts pragmatism as a core value of the party he will represent in Taiwan’s 2024 presidential elections, but uncertainties loom large for his plans for trilateral relations.  

Can the US Trust Ko Wen-je’s Pragmatism?

TPP Chair Ko Wen-je (left) listens during a meeting with U.S. Representative John Carter (not pictured) in Austin, U.S., Apr. 24, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ 柯文哲

Former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who leads Taiwan’s third-largest political party, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), is currently visiting the United States on a self-declared mission “to know and to be known” – to get to know the U.S. government and for its officials to learn what he represents. 

Ko’s three-week trip is significant as he is one of the presidential hopefuls in Taiwan’s upcoming 2024 election. The election will determine who inherits President Tsai Ing-wen’s largely favorable legacy of Taiwan-U.S. relations and how trilateral relations between Taiwan, China, and the United States may change moving forward.

Whereas the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the major opposition Kuomintang (KMT) have established working relationships or mutual understandings with Washington through their respective administrations from the past, the TPP, founded by Ko only in 2019, has had limited opportunities to deal with the U.S. government. 

The young third party is eager to differentiate itself from Taiwan’s political old guard by introducing innovative solutions to the cross-strait issue, but its stances on national security and cross-strait relations have remained largely unclear and untested. Ko began to address some of these concerns on his U.S. trip, promising pragmatism in his party’s approach to foreign policy, especially in the maintenance of cross-strait and trilateral relations. But the TPP’s strategy hinges on several uncertain variables.   

During a fireside chat with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s (CSIS) China Power Project on April 20, Ko introduced the TPP as a party that is uninterested in traditional ideologies and aims to center the Taiwanese people as its main stakeholders through the means of “pragmatism and professionalism.”

Ko touted a wide range of examples from his tenure as Taipei mayor through which his city government demonstrated the characteristic of pragmatism in particular. He also indicated that such an approach may benefit Taiwan’s overall foreign policy.

“In a very pragmatic sense, Taiwan gaining or losing one of its diplomatic ties does not make a substantive difference. There are many ways to engage in foreign diplomacy via economic and trade activities, city diplomacy, and others,” Ko said, in response to a question on Honduras cutting ties with Taiwan and the potential of Paraguay following suit.

Ko’s experience with “city diplomacy” as an alternative form of maintaining relations comes from the Taipei city government’s External Affairs Commission, which he created as a special project under his mayoral office. The commission is tasked with strengthening Taipei’s relationships with 51 sister cities, representative offices, and foreign chambers of commerce. 

At the national level, Ko acknowledged that in the “conventional sense,” Taiwan’s ability to maintain diplomatic ties has been suppressed by Beijing, but he offered a different perspective: The Taiwanese passport is more widely accepted around the world compared to a passport from China. He intends to apply this same style of out-of-the-box pragmatism to his cross-strait policy. 

Like the ruling DPP, Ko recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign and independent state, but he doesn’t actively discuss the topic of sovereignty and independence, as he hopes to increase engagement with Beijing, which is more in line with the KMT’s agenda. Ko believes that his party is uniquely positioned to offer a middle ground between two extremes – the KMT being too “submissive” toward Beijing while the DPP has stopped all channels of communication. 

A review of Ko’s past statements and actions regarding China have somewhat reflected this middle-ground position. His proposal to link Taiwan and China by building a bridge connecting Xiamen and Kinmen and remarks such as “both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family,” have earned him accusations of cozying up to Beijing. On the other hand, he’s also called out Beijing for escalating tensions via military threat and import bans. 

However, whether a TPP administration will possess the ability to actually communicate effectively with Beijing remains largely questionable. The KMT, which is often characterized as “China-friendly,” relies on the “1992 Consensus,” an alleged agreement between Taipei and Beijing that allows for ambiguity on both sides in the interpretation of “one China.” 

Ko said in 2015 that he “understood and respected” the 1992 Consensus’ role in maintaining cross-strait relations and stability. In more recent interviews, he said that “the era has passed” for the Consensus in Taiwan, urging all parties to pursue a new cross-strait discourse. 

Speaking at CSIS, Ko compared the 1992 Consensus to an allergy for Taiwanese voters: “If a patient is allergic to penicillin, why would you keep insisting on prescribing [penicillin] if it’s already going to create an allergic reaction?” During a talk at John Hopkins University, Ko used a cruder analogy, comparing the Consensus to “excrement” – no matter how well it is packaged, its unfavorable nature remains unchanged. 

In place of a cross-strait framework that relies on ambiguity, Ko proposes a more pragmatic and straightforward “five mutual principles” doctrine for Taipei and Beijing to “know, understand, respect, cooperate with, and forgive” one another. He also intends to increase cross-strait communication and engagement to avoid dangerous miscalculations, pointing to the annual Taipei-Shanghai twin-city forums he held as mayor as evidence of maintaining people-to-people ties even as cross-strait tensions run high.  

Whether Beijing will accept Ko’s proposal remains yet another open question. The 1992 Consensus has become a prerequisite for political actors in Taiwan to engage with Beijing, especially after 2019, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping redefined its interpretation to be part of “national reunification.” Former President Ma Ying-jeou’s recent China trip demonstrated how the KMT continues to gain political access to Beijing by engaging on the basis of the 1992 Consensus. 

Ko may soon receive an answer to his ambitious pitch, as former TPP legislator Tsai Pi-ru recently visited China on a five-day trip to “exchange views” with its academic institutions. Commenting on the concurrent trip taken by one of his closest colleagues within the party, Ko said in the United States that “China is really interested in knowing some of the TPP’s officers.”

The TPP’s visits in both China and the U.S. are unlikely coincidental. The simultaneous trips are a not-so-subtle demonstration of the party’s commitment to maintaining trilateral relations with the two superpowers. Ko defines his party’s approach to the three-way relationship as “dynamic equilibrium.” 

Far from any set position, Ko’s strategy of dynamic equilibrium may suggest that Taiwan should remain flexible and play a reactionary role to the stimuli produced by Washington and Beijing. This is intended to encourage China to act in good faith while Taiwan continues to emphasize its own autonomy and interests.

The delicate balance Ko seeks through a strategy of dynamic equilibrium would require both the United States and China to place a certain degree of trust in Taiwan’s administration. On the maintenance of Taiwan-U.S. relations, Ko assured that regardless of which party assumes power, “our relations with the U.S. will not change,” adding that the U.S. is one of the only countries that has “the courage to provide arms sales to Taiwan.”

Under the Tsai administration, which saw Taiwan-U.S. relations make great strides, Taiwan’s commitment to strengthening its defense capabilities has become a key focus for both countries. Ko’s national defense strategy is guided by “being prepared for war and thus not fear[ing] it; being ready for war but not provoking it.”

While pursuing more amicable relations with China, Ko seeks to strengthen Taiwan’s all-out defense readiness and uphold peace in the Indo-Pacific region. The details of how such a policy should be implemented remain blurry, but Ko differentiates his party’s position once again by comparing the TPP with the KMT, which is “afraid of war,” and the DPP, which acts “provocatively” in creating momentum to “seek war.”

From national defense to cross-strait relations, Ko is confident that he is delivering the right messages to Washington in order to gain its trust. Ko reportedly met with high-level officials during three separate meetings at the American Institute of Taiwan’s Washington headquarters, after which he shared his understanding of the basic principle of “no surprises.”

As Ko’s U.S. trip winds down, a general picture of a potential TPP administration’s foreign policy begins to take shape, but it also leaves wide gaps that are entirely determined by fellow participants in the trilateral relationship. Can Ko effectively convince both superpowers that his new, pragmatic approach is in the interest of all sides?  

Of all the uncertainties Ko faces, perhaps his greatest challenge remains at the ballot in January 2024. Even if Ko were to obtain the trust of both Washington and Beijing, he and his party would first have to win over Taiwan’s voters, who have never elected a presidential candidate from a third party.