On May 20, Taiwan’s newly elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, was inaugurated, marking the end of the centre-right Kuomintang’s eight-year rule. On the mainland across the Taiwan Strait, all mention of ‘Taiwan’ and ‘Tsai Ing-wen’ was censored on popular social media site Sina Weibo in an effort to distract from the rise of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP).
In January of this year, Tsai led the DPP to its second ever electoral victory. In her inauguration speech Tsai failed to recognise the 1992 Consensus, angering Chinese officials who threatened to suspend cross-strait talks. The Consensus is an understanding reached between Beijing and Taipei in 1992 that both entities belong to a single sovereign nation; it is left open to interpretation which side is the legitimate government. In her opening address, Tsai stated she respected the ‘historic fact’ that the 1992 meeting took place but stopped shy of explicit acknowledgement of the Consensus itself.
The PRC has repeatedly insisted upon the recognition of the 1992 Consensus as a proviso to cross-strait talks. Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesman of the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), recently emphasised that the establishment of a cross-strait hotline between Beijing and Taipei in 2014 was only possible under shared recognition of the Consensus. In 2008, Tsai’s predecessor, KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou, acknowledged the Consensus, reducing tensions and resulting in improved relations with Beijing. The subsequent introduction of regular direct flights, increased tourist numbers and deepened trade links, leading to a historic meeting last year between Ma and President Xi Jinping in Singapore. If Tsai insists on non-recognition of the 1992 Consensus she could undo the progress of the past eight years.
However, in her speech on Friday Tsai pledged to abide by the constitution of ‘the Republic of China’, thereby acknowledging Taiwan’s official title as recognised by Beijing. She also reiterated that her government would adhere to the Act Governing Relations, which states Taiwan and the PRC are to be treated as areas under one China prior to reunification. Professor Alexander Wang Chieh-cheng of Tamkang University states that these remarks will make it difficult for Beijing to accuse Tsai of violating the one-China principle.
Nonetheless, Beijing remains wary of Tsai and the DPP. Despite no longer openly advocating independence, since the DPP’s ascendancy Beijing has taken steps to renew challenges to Taiwan’s international recognition. In April, dozens of Taiwanese telecommunications fraud suspects captured in Kenya and Malaysia were deported to the PRC under pressure from mainland authorities. In March, the PRC and Gambia signed a joint communiqué restoring diplomatic relations and emphasising that ‘the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the PRC’s territory’. Further, Taiwan’s invitation to participate as an observer in the WHO this year came with explicit reference to the principle that Taiwan and the mainland are part of ‘one China’.
Beijing maintains that unification with Taiwan will be achieved eventually, by force if necessary. Article 8 of the PRC’s Constitution declares that Beijing will use force if Taiwan tries to secede or if foreign forces intervene on the side of Taiwan. Although more than 70 percent of Taiwan’s population now self-identify as ‘Taiwanese’ rather than ‘Chinese’, the public prefers the current arrangement of de facto independence to the inevitable disastrous economic and security consequences of conflict with the PRC.
Tsai’s priorities, as stated in her inaugural speech, are mainly domestic. Taiwan’s exports have fallen for 15 straight months and annual growth has slowed to less than one percent. Tsai highlighted the need to reform Taiwan’s pension, education and judicial systems, provide better job opportunities for young people, protect the environment and ensure food safety. She reiterated her campaign pledge to focus on developing the biotech, green technology, advanced manufacturing and defence industries. She also said she would push for Taiwan to join trade blocs including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But Tsai needs to tread carefully. She knows that for there to be peace between Taiwan and the mainland, she needs to recognise the one-China principle – something she has tried to do by implication through her rhetoric. Her lack of acknowledgement of the 1992 Consensus so far has been driven by respect for pro-independence factions in Taiwan, factions that ensured her election. If Tsai loses the confidence of these pro-independence groups they may mount a more aggressive political challenge against the DPP in the next election. This could deliver Taiwan into the hands of hardline, non-negotiating independence activists.
THE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON
Although the US claims to be the leader of the democratic world, its primary interests in the Taiwan Strait lie in preserving the status quo. If Washington were to declare outright support for Taiwanese independence, it might antagonise the PRC into pursuing a more muscular effort to recapture the island.
Taiwan is located close to some of the world’s busiest air and sea routes and holds a strategic position in the first island chain. If the PRC reclaims complete control over Taiwan, it will enhance its geostrategic posture against the US and acquire the potential to sanction other countries seeking to use the trade routes if they resist Chinese claims in the South and East China Seas.
At the same time, if the US remains silent in the face of the PRC’s challenges to Taiwan’s international recognition, Beijing may see a green light for armed reunification. Thus, the US needs to tread delicately to indicate to Beijing that the current state of affairs is economically and strategically the best choice for all parties involved.
Although Taiwan’s new president might dream of independence in the long run, she is aware that her country’s slowing economy and increased dependence on the PRC makes that impossible in the short term. For all parties concerned, it is best if the status quo is maintained. That may well mean some flexibility from Beijing regarding Tsai’s formulation of the one-China policy.