By J. Michael Cole.
The breadth and scope of the liberalization that has occurred in the Taiwan Strait since the election of Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 2008 has been nothing short of extraordinary, at least if this progress is contrasted with what came before. For Ma critics, the KMT has gone too far, too fast, and in the process it may have undermined the sovereignty of Taiwan. However, with presidential elections less than three years away, Ma will probably be unable to deliver much more than what has already been offered to Beijing, which means that political dialogue on Taiwan’s status will remain off the table.
Paradoxically, the reason why the cross-Strait honeymoon may be over stems from the very policies that permitted Ma to make short shrift of former premier Frank Hsieh, his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opponent in 2008, and to be re-elected in 2012 against a formidable challenger, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen.
More than any other party, Ma’s KMT understood back in 2008 that in order to regain, and retain, power, it needed to clearly articulate what it meant by maintaining the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait, while simultaneously providing reassurances to both Beijing and Washington. What it did better than other contenders, and why it won, was to understand the maneuvering space within which it could operate and how to balance the expectations, often at odds with one another, of China, the U.S., and Taiwan’s 23 million people.
Succeeding in doing so, the Ma administration managed to assuage Washington’s fears while exhibiting determination to improve relations with Beijing. The changes came quickly, with no less than eighteen cross-Strait agreements, a substantial influx of Chinese tourists and students, and growing Chinese investment. Despite the rapid pace of liberalization and fears among some that the situation was spinning out of control, Ma secured a second term with another solid win in January 2012, not because Taiwanese voters were stupid or “brainwashed,” but because his version of the balancing act was the most convincingly articulated.
But that’s about as far as Ma and the KMT can — and will — go. Repeated calls by Beijing to launch political talks, sign a peace accord, and establish a military confidence-building mechanism (CBM) have gone unheeded by Taipei, which continues to stall by arguing that the time is “not ripe.” Although there are signs that Beijing, under Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General and President Xi Jinping, increased the pressure on Taipei in late 2012 and has intensified United Front efforts toward “reunification,” the window in which the CCP could have scored on the political side of the cross-Strait relationship has passed. And it is closing fast. If Ma had seen any room for political dialogue within his maneuvering space, such talks would have occurred by now. As the 2016 presidential election approaches, and with little indication that, closer exchanges notwithstanding, Taiwanese are any more amenable to unification or talks on the subject, Ma, who cannot run for a third term, will be compelled for the sake of his party and its candidate, to harden his stance on the inviolability of the “status quo.” Apart from Beijing, pressure to open political dialogue could also come from the business sector in Taiwan, but the benefits of meeting such demands will have to be weighed against the political costs, and may not be worth the risk.
Aware that political talks are a non-starter with Taiwanese voters, and that they lie outside the maneuvering space, any future KMT candidate hoping to succeed in the 2016 presidential election will have to adopt a more conservative, or “centrist,” position on sovereignty. Whoever the candidate is will consequently apply tremendous pressure on Ma not to sabotage his or her chances of being elected by adopting a policy vis-à-vis China that goes against the wishes of mainstream Taiwanese.
One additional factor that could further force Ma to reflect on his successor’s predilections is the president’s low approval ratings, the result of a variety of domestic factors, including a stagnant economy. Barring a dramatic improvement in his support levels, public discontent with the administration will be a legacy that Ma will pass on to the next KMT candidate. Already handicapped by this, that candidate won’t be able to afford a second blow caused by a sudden departure from the “status quo” policy.
Thus is the impact of democracy and of the electoral cycle, which precludes dramatic policy shifts on matters that affect people’s core interests.
Ma, who doubles as KMT chairman, has already distanced himself from the more Beijing-friendly factions within his party and the pan-blue camp. A typical example was the Presidential Office’s quick dismissal of remarks by honorary KMT chairman Lien Chan during a visit to Beijing in February 2013, who said that political talks between the two sides were “inevitable.” Meanwhile, releasing its 2013 Quadrennial Defense Review earlier this month, the Ministry of National Defense made it clear that the time was “not ripe” for the establishment of CBMs with China, something long sought by Beijing, as the implications could be far-reaching and touch on the subject of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
As the more conservative branch of the KMT positions itself for 2016, the divide within the party will also likely widen, which could presage a more contentious atmosphere within the KMT for the remainder of Ma’s term.
Beijing’s ability to force Ma’s hand will also remain limited. Despite discontent in some circles with the lack of progress achieved with Ma on the political front, the CCP has learned from past experience, such as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, that belligerence is counterproductive and will only succeed in alienating the Taiwanese. Any sudden, aggressive move by Beijing to force Taipei to enter political negotiations would therefore risk producing the same results, something that Ma and the KMT were aware of all along, and which has made their stalling tactics not only possible, but a key component of their strategy to remain in office.
Beijing knows that threat signals would create a lose-lose situation for the KMT, its favorite partner across the Taiwan Strait: Giving in to Chinese threats would backfire and risk costing the KMT the election, while refusal to cooperate would increase tensions in the Taiwan Strait and exacerbate Taiwanese nationalism, thus forcing the KMT to tap into that sentiment during its campaigning.
Cognizant of this reality, Beijing, which is comfortable as long as Taiwan is not perceived to be “drifting” toward de-jure independence, will continue to express discontent with the lack of progress, but will refrain from acting in ways that risk undermining the KMT. It will, therefore, play along with Taipei’s stalling tactics, which in turn ensures that the next three years leading up to the presidential election in 2016 will be very familiar to Taiwan watchers. The KMT operates in a democracy, and what it wants above all is to be elected again. Expect more of the same — that’s the only viable policy.
J. Michael Cole is Deputy News Editor at the Taipei Times in Taiwan, a contributor for Jane’s Defence Weekly and columnist for The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @JMichaelCole1.