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Whither cross-Strait relations?

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In Brief

What does the victory of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential election mean for cross-Strait relations? Today’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is a considerably different political animal to former president Chen Shui-bian’s DPP.


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Under Tsai, the party’s cross-Strait policy has evolved, becoming more centrist and ambiguous in its slant. Tsai’s DPP is of course still far less welcoming to China than the Kuomintang (KMT), but it has moved away from the brand of pro-independence adventurism that imperilled cross-Strait ties and cost Chen dearly.

There is greater alignment between the DPP and KMT’s basic cross-Strait positions than commonly perceived. Tsai’s declaration that she would preserve the ‘status quo of peace and stability’ is in principle not fundamentally different from Ma Ying-jeou’s ‘Three Nos’ policy (no unification, no independence, no use of force). In 2014, the DPP published its mainland policy review which called for the party to ‘proactively and confidently participate’ in cross-Strait dialogue and pursue cross-Strait economic interactions ‘on the basis of the existing foundation’ — exhortations not vastly out of sync with the KMT’s ideas.

The main difference between the DPP and KMT’s positions is the degree of the tilt. The KMT’s notion of the status quo leans Taiwan closer to China (in particular, through greater economic integration) while the DPP’s version is more about maintaining Taipei’s distance from Beijing.

Tsai has yet to explicitly endorse the 1992 Consensus, which Beijing has stated is one of the preconditions for cross-Strait dialogue. But the new Taiwanese leader has also not outright rejected the 1992 Consensus and appears to understand that any refutation of the one-China principle would not be tolerated by Beijing.

Tellingly, at a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Tsai spoke of the importance of securing the ‘accumulated outcomes of more than 20 years of negotiations and exchanges’, which apparently includes the 1992 Consensus. She stated that ‘these accumulated outcomes will serve as the firm basis of [her] efforts to further the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations’.

Such language could well be electioneering manoeuvres or clever rhetoric meant to reassure international audiences. Yet there is considerable political incentive for the DPP to pursue a more conciliatory position towards China. It would be in the DPP’s interest to demonstrate to the Taiwanese people that, like the KMT, it too can pursue dialogue with Beijing without compromising the island’s de facto independence. Indeed, Tsai has spoken of changing the perception that the KMT is the only party capable of managing relations with Beijing. And significantly, she has not ruled out the possibility of meeting Xi Jinping once she becomes Taiwan’s president.

China remains deeply suspicious of the DPP and Tsai’s longer-term intentions. Mainland observers point out that the DPP has yet to rescind the party’s 2007 Normal Nation Resolution, or the 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s future, which are premised on the notion of Taiwan as a sovereign entity separate from China. They have also not forgotten Tsai’s role in the crafting of the controversial ‘Two States Theory’ or her earlier time as the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council from 2000–2004, a period when cross-Strait ties were particularly fraught.

But despite these misgivings, the reality is that Beijing has limited policy options vis-à-vis Taipei. Closer economic ties have not translated into Taiwanese political goodwill towards China, while the Chinese political solution of ‘one country, two systems’ has become even more unappealing in democratic Taiwan in the wake of political unrest in Hong Kong. The fact that Chinese military might has yet to reach parity with that of Washington’s will also limit Xi’s options. Only if Taiwan declares formal independence would Xi consider a military solution.

Even then it is a battle he cannot be sure of winning, while a cross-Strait war would be sure to jeopardise the gains of three decades of reform and opening-up in China. Xi’s overwhelming priority in the next two years before the 19th Party Congress will be to stabilise the Chinese economy. He would not want to be distracted by renewed trouble in the Taiwan Strait, alongside China’s continuing problems in the South China Sea.

This limited policy room means that Beijing needs to consider a more open attitude towards the DPP, especially given that the DPP will dominate Taiwanese politics in the foreseeable future. There are signs that Beijing is starting to adjust its traditional attitude towards the DPP, quietly allowing some limited or indirect interactions between the Chinese Communist Party and the DPP. As long as a Taiwanese leader steers clear of overtly pushing for Taiwanese independence, there will be some room for negotiation with Beijing.

A Tsai-led Taiwan will likely persist with existing institutional mechanisms to pursue cross-Strait relations with China, although the frequency or pace of exchanges may well decline. While the Tsai regime will resist moving Taipei closer to Beijing, it will not repeat the previous DPP-led government’s mistake of pursuing Taiwanese independence as it has too much to lose.

Tsai will resemble a cold Ma Ying-jeou in overall tenor of the orientation towards China. This situation will not fully satisfy Beijing, but it at least satisfies the bottom-line in Chinese policy to avert Taiwan’s formal independence. The coming years are likely to see calm but colder waters in the Taiwan Strait.

Hoo Tiang Boon is an Assistant Professor and James Char is a Research Analyst with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). 

 A version of this article was first published here in the Straits Times.

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