China Power

Cross-Strait Issues Take Center Stage in Taiwan’s Presidential Race

Recent Features

China Power | Politics | East Asia

Cross-Strait Issues Take Center Stage in Taiwan’s Presidential Race

Both Ko Wen-je and Hou Yu-ih have endorsed resurrecting the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, the subject of mass protests back in 2014.

Cross-Strait Issues Take Center Stage in Taiwan’s Presidential Race

In this March 30, 2014, file photo, hundreds of thousands of people protest the CSSTA outside the presidential building in Taipei, Taiwan, as part of the Sunflower Movement.

Credit: Depositphotos

Ahead of elections next January, the pan-Blue camp in Taiwan is increasingly taking a harder line on cross-strait issues. This comes at a time when the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, Hou Yu-ih, is trailing behind former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who is running as the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Vice President William Lai, in polling. The TPP is a pan-Blue third party that has usually positioned itself as more moderate than the KMT on cross-strait and social issues.

But Ko surprised voters and pundits alike with a proposal to revive the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), shortly after the 10-year anniversary of the controversial trade pact’s signing in 2013. The CSSTA would have allowed for Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry, which is around 70 percent of Taiwan’s GDP.

Concerns about the CSSTA’s possible effects on political freedoms motivated the 2014 Sunflower Movement, one of the largest social movements in Taiwan’s history. The Sunflower Movement involved the month-long occupation of the Taiwanese legislature in protest against the CSSTA. At its peak, 500,000 people took to the streets of Taipei on March 30, 2014 to demonstrate against the trade pact. Apart from concerns over the bill itself, the protest broke out because the KMT was perceived as having rammed the bill through the legislature, evading committee review, in what was later known as the “30-second incident.” 

The proposal by Ko to revive the CSSTA was surprising, seeing as the former Taipei mayor initially emerged as a political figure in the wake of the movement and claimed to side with the protesters. Ko’s 2014 election as Taipei mayor occurred with the support of post-Sunflower Movement youth activists and the endorsement of the DPP, which did not field its own candidate.

In the years since, however, ties between Ko and the pan-Green camp have soured because of Ko’s increasing closeness to members of the pan-Blue camp. A major factor in the deterioration of relations was city-based cross-strait exchanges conducted between Taipei and Shanghai. During these exchanges, Taiwan was framed as part of China, and Ko regularly reiterated the view that Taiwan and China were “one family with a common destiny.”

The idea of reviving the CSSTA first began to be floated as a TPP platform late last month. Even then, Ko came under fire for reversing course on the CSSTA. Some framing of the issue articulated Ko’s views as having been opposed to the means by which the CSSTA was passed, but not the agreement itself.

Given the criticisms, however, Ko eventually distanced himself from his initial endorsement of reviving the CSSTA, stating that this was only raised as part of an internal discussion in the TPP. He seems to have been strategically ambiguous on whether he supports reviving the CSSTA or not since then.

But at a time in which the KMT is playing catch-up with the TPP, Ko’s initial endorsement of reviving the CSSTA pushed Hou into endorsing the agreement. Hou sought to differentiate his stance from Ko’s by highlighting the latter’s opposition to the CSSTA in 2014.

Unlike Ko, Hou has not backed away from his support of the CSSTA. As such, the CSSTA has effectively reentered political discourse. Indeed, the KMT is increasingly leaning into the narrative that economic engagement with China is necessary to stave off conflict, while framing the DPP as irrationally opposed to such engagement with China. To this extent, the KMT has sought to position itself as a party of peace, to be contrasted with the “warmongering” DPP, which provokes China because of its ideological commitment to hardline pro-independence stances.

To some extent, the Hou campaign is increasingly framing its platform as about rolling back the policies of the Tsai administration. For example, another position raised by the Hou campaign has been undoing the extension of the military draft to one year that took place under the Tsai administration last December. Again, this would be part of the peace versus war framing used by the KMT for campaigning.

Undoing the draft extension was first brought up by Hou on Monday. However, the DPP immediately attacked his comment to defending Taiwan, and by Tuesday, Hou was walking back these comments. Hou said he did not necessarily oppose lengthening the draft to one year and that he would continue purchase arms from the United States if elected president. Consequently, it remains to be seen if Hou commits to the stance of scrapping the draft extension or not.

But, either way, as most highlighted by the revival of the proposition to pass the CSSTA, many of the policies of the Ma Ying-jeou administration seem to have come back for the KMT in the present election cycle.

For the first time, Hou committed to the 1992 Consensus in comments on Monday. Previously, Hou was reluctant to endorse the idea because it has proven toxic for the KMT in previous election cycles, with the view that the 1992 Consensus compromises too much to China.

Successive KMT chairs such as Johnny Chiang and Eric Chu proposed dropping the 1992 Consensus before abandoning the idea in the face of opposition within the KMT. Such opposition may be coming from Ma and his allies. Ma, who likely views the 1992 Consensus as a significant part of his political legacy, continues to play an important role within the KMT as a factional leader after the end of his presidency.

It is to be seen whether Hou commits to an endorsement of the 1992 Consensus alongside his endorsement of the CSSTA, or whether this – like the reduction of mandatory military service – is an idea that will also be walked back. Much remains up in the air for the Hou campaign, even if it seems to be shifting in the direction of reviving Ma-era policy on the whole.

In addition to Hou resurrecting key policies from the Ma period, key figures of the Ma administration, such as former National Security Council head King Pu-tsung, were recently named to positions in the Hou campaign.

The politics of a decade past have again come back to the fore in Taiwanese politics, then. But it remains to be seen whether KMT will simply provoke another round of blowback by trying to push for cross-strait policies that led to significant backlash in the past. After all, current President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP is often seen as having won the 2016 election by leveraging off of youth-led political momentum in the wake of the 2014 Sunflower Movement in opposition to the CSSTA.