VOTE 2016: Taiwan-PRC Relations: Continuity or Renewed Tensions?

A two-part article on what could happen after the January 16, 2016, elections in Taiwan
Photo: Tsai Ing-wen Facebook page
Photo: Tsai Ing-wen Facebook page
J. Michael Cole
By

With the high likelihood that Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will regain the presidency in the January 2016 elections, many analysts have predicted a return of tensions in the Taiwan Strait after eight years of relative stability under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou.

Whether a DPP victory in those elections would indeed mark a return to hostilities will be largely contingent on how Beijing reacts to this likely development.

From the outset it’s important that we clarify what the DPP under its Chairperson and presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is not. Unlike her predecessor Chen Shui-bian, who served two terms from 2000-2008, Tsai has taken a more subdued approach to cross-strait relations. She has chosen instead to focus on domestic matters and to consolidate the nation. When pressed to explain her cross-strait policies, Tsai has adopted a more centrist position than her predecessor by vowing to maintain the ‘status quo’ under the current constitutional framework of the Republic of China (ROC) and to seek continuity in the relationship with Beijing.

In other words, despite the alarmism in some circles, Tsai will not suddenly declare de jure independence for Taiwan, an act that Beijing has made clear would provide ‘justification’ for the use of force.

Moreover, by avoiding the issue of the ‘independence clause’ in the party charter and instead using the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, which states that the ROC/Taiwan is already an independent state as her basis for Taiwan’s relations with China, Tsai was signaling that she did not intend to make cross-strait relations a major factor in her campaign.

Tsai’s China policy therefore looks rather similar to that of the KMT’s Ma, who throughout his presidency made the ‘status quo’ a principal pillar of his own China policy. Tsai and Ma nevertheless differ in one key aspect, and that is the controversial ‘1992 consensus,’ of which its ‘one China’ clause is unacceptable to her DPP constituents. Still, Tsai has promised the continuation of constructive relations with China – in other words, she is giving precedence to substance over technicalities such as the ‘platform’ on which cross-strait dialogue will occur.

Despite the criticism heard in the more conservative wing of her party, who accused her of engineering the ‘KMT-ization’ of the DPP, Tsai is currently at the apex of her power, with opinion polls showing a comfortable lead against the KMT candidate or any combination of opponents.

 

This article was originally published on the Lowy Interpreter of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, on July 30, 2015. Part 1 continues here. Part 2 is available here. Excerpts reprinted with permission.

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