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Tsai’s diplomatic dilemmas

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In this photo taken Jan. 16, 2016, Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, waves as she declares victory in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

After a historic, overwhelming election victory on 16 January, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by Tsai Ing-wen will dominate Taiwan’s executive and legislative branches starting on 20 May.


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The DPP’s dominance will make policy implementation easier on the domestic front. But it will have less room to manoeuvre on the international front. If the future DPP government does not accept the ‘1992 Consensus’ — based either on the Chinese Communist Party government’s ‘One-China’ principle or on the Kuomintang government’s ‘One China, Respective Interpretations’ understanding — and cannot form a mutually agreeable new arrangement with Beijing, it will face a series of enormous diplomatic challenges.

The first immediate challenge concerns the ‘diplomatic truce’ initiated unilaterally by the Ma Ying-jeou administration in Taipei in May 2008 and later implicitly agreed to by the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations in Beijing. Under the truce, both sides have halted the struggle for diplomatic recognition among their allies.

The future DPP government should not rule out the possibility that some diplomatic allies of Taiwan will soon approach Beijing, as some did in the first year or two of Ma’s presidency. Beijing may take on one or more of Taiwan’s allies in order to demonstrate the conceivable demise of the ‘diplomatic truce’ if Tsai refuses to formulate a special political arrangement with Beijing.

It is not unlikely that the future Tsai administration will respond by endeavouring to secure diplomatic recognition from one or two of Beijing’s allies. If this were to happen, a state of ‘chequebook diplomacy’ between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait would begin again, which will not be welcomed by most major powers.

Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the World Health Assembly (WHA), the annual forum of the World Health Organization (WHO), presents another challenge. The Assembly will be held on 23 May, four days after Tsai’s inauguration. It is possible that Taiwan will receive an invitation to the Assembly addressed to the minister of health and welfare of ‘Chinese Taipei’ by mid-May. The new minister, to be appointed by Tsai, may be able to attend the Assembly if the controversial political relationship between Taipei and Beijing can be shelved in the interim.

It is also possible that Taiwan will not receive an invitation to the WHA until Beijing, one of the WHO’s influential members, can be sure that Tsai will not negate the ‘1992 Consensus’ and/or call for Taiwan’s independence prior to or during her inauguration.

Yet if Tsai maintains her current, somewhat ambiguous, policy towards cross-Strait relations, it would not necessarily guarantee an invitation either. Beijing has the leverage to assume a more assertive and suppressive policy towards Taiwan if it feels that the future Tsai administration is going to remain reluctant to accept the ‘1992 Consensus’ or to work on a new, mutually acceptable political arrangement. For Beijing, the ‘One-China principle’ is of critical importance and at the core of its political arrangement with Taiwan.

Another challenge will come in mid-September with the 2016 session of the UN General Assembly. The future DPP government faces a dilemma between the pursuit of a UN seat and the continuation of the Ma administration’s stance on the issue. Under the latter policy, Taiwan did not seek a UN seat directly, preferring to work on meaningful participation in UN specialised agencies such as the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

If Tsai and her administration pursue a UN seat, they may face severe opposition from both Beijing and Washington, as the move could lead to a rising political standoff in the Taiwan Strait. It will be tough for the future Tsai administration to predict the behaviour of Beijing who may see Tsai’s UN policy as a challenge to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait — defined unilaterally by Beijing. Beijing may respond to such a challenge by stalling cross-Strait relations or blocking Taiwan’s international space.

Alternatively, continuing the Ma administration’s UN policy, which has long been criticised by the DPP and pro-independence parties, could lead supporters of these parties to doubt Tsai’s commitment to upholding Taiwan’s sovereignty.

An insurmountable issue facing every Taiwanese administration that aims for a UN seat is the fact that, of the 28 member states in the UN General Committee, only Nauru and Paraguay are Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. The General Committee determines the provisional agenda and makes recommendations to the General Assembly. As a result, any provocative measure adopted by Taiwan’s allies on behalf of the future Tsai administration will be less fruitful this year.

On top of this, Tsai will need to negotiate the upcoming session of the ICAO Assembly, which commences on 27 September, roughly two weeks after the beginning of the UN General Assembly. In 2013, Taiwan’s Director-General of the Civil Aeronautics Administration received an invitation to attend the ICAO Assembly as the guest of the ICAO Council’s president. This was a special arrangement supported by all the member states concerned, including Beijing. This year, Taiwan’s participation will hinge on the level of international support for the future Tsai administration and on the state of cross-Strait political relations.

These urgent diplomatic challenges faced by the future DPP government need not pose significant problems for Taiwan, as long as cross-Strait relations remain stable and major powers such as the United States are willing to show their support following Tsai’s inauguration. The outcomes of Taiwan’s challenges depend not only on Tsai and the DPP, but also on the Xi administration and all governments that desire peace and prosperity in the region.

Kwei-Bo Huang is an Associate Professor in the Department of Diplomacy at National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. He served as Chairman of the Research and Planning Committee at the Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs between February 2009 and January 2011.

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