Written by Yu-Hua Chen.
The result of 2016 Taiwan presidential election has come out and, not surprisingly, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory against the Kuomintang candidate Eric Chu (6.8 million votes against 3.8 million). More importantly, in the Legislative Yuan the DPP holds 68 seats out of 113. What does this unprecedented DPP victory of mean for the future of Cross-Strait relations?
In principle, the dynamic balance of Cross-Strait relations will be maintained by four important actors: Washington, Beijing, Taipei, and especially, young Taiwanese. First of all, the US government is unlikely to change its policy toward Taiwan under the emerging Sion-American rivalry. In fact, the US expected the DPP and has expressed its continued support for the peaceful resolution of the dispute between China and Taiwan. In a conference held by the Nation Committee on United States–China Relations on January 11, four former US defense secretaries (Harold Brown, William Perry, William Cohen, and Chuck Hagel) together expressed their view on the future of the Cross-Strait relations. While Hagel reminded the new Taiwan government not to force the US to make a tough decision, other secretaries relayed four important messages from Washington to Beijing: 1) the US has a commitment to Taiwan because of the Taiwan Relations Act, 2) this commitment relates to US credibility to other treaty allies, 3) China cannot count on the US being passive if China wants to take over Taiwan by force, and most importantly 4) the economic benefits between Taiwan and China are too huge to sacrifice. In other words, the US wants both sides of the Straits to work out a peaceful modus vivendi.
Tsai’s DDP has demonstrated a willingness to engage with China, especially on the issue of Taiwan sovereignty. To avoid provoking China during the campaign, Tsai did not mention the independence constitution of the DPP whose objective is to construct “the Republic of Taiwan” to replace the current name of Taiwan, Republic of China (ROC). In addition, she did not mention the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future (台灣前途決議文) pointing out Taiwan is a sovereign state. The DPP’s adoption of such a low-profile posture on sovereignty shows its willingness to peacefully manage Cross-Strait relations with Beijing. The changed position, especially on the issue of the “92 Consensus” is a highlight of Tsai’s pragmatism. In the debate between presidential candidates, Tsai said to all of Taiwanese that the “92 Consensus”, whose existence she denied in her 2012 presidential campaign, is one option. Her new stance on the Taiwan sovereignty issue frustrated many of her supporters and cannot be regarded as insincere.
One of the factors changing this balance came from Beijing. President Xi Jinping and many Chinese officials made it clear that the Cross-Strait relations cannot have a peaceful development without the “92 consensus”. The mouthpiece of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), General Wang Hongguang issued multiple warnings (see this, this, this, and this) to the US and Taiwan on the consequences of a DPP victory throughout the campaign. Furthermore, China Central Television broadcasts how the PLA staged a takeover of mock Taipei City during the Chi Rihe (朱日和) military drill. Kanwa reported that the PLA is speeding up its military preparations against Taiwan because more H6H bombers have been deployed in the Nanjing military region. Therefore, Beijing, or at least the PLA, will not compromise its sovereignty claim over Taiwan and might even assert that claim more aggressively.
The other factor which is going to clash with Beijing’s attitude toward Taiwan are young Taiwanese who are called natural independentists (天然獨). Born in the 1980s and 1990s, they do not have any memory about the Cold War and have barely memory about the Taiwan Strait Crisis, but they loathe Beijing’s unambiguous intention toward their country. They earnestly want their country to have clearer markers that Taiwan or the ROC is a de jure sovereign state in all issues. The Sunflower Movement, the Passport of the Republic of Taiwan Movement, and the Anti-black-box Curriculum Movement are the proof that they will not compromise their state’s sovereignty. It should be noted that the DPP did not lead any of those movements. In this election, the main reason that young Taiwanese cast ballots for Tsai is not because they agree with her changed position on the “92 Consensus” but because they were so disappointed in the Ma administration’s policy performance, especially in its second term. Therefore, they were decisive in Tsai’s election as president, but it is very likely that they will also be disappointed in Tsai’s China policy.
Cross-Strait relations will depend on how well Beijing works with Tsai. Former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s famous “for noes and one without” (四不一沒有) in his 2000 inauguration speech boldly showed the DPP’s goodwill toward Beijing and frustrated many of his supporters. However, Beijing rejected this olive branch and Chen subsequently ignited his Taiwan independence movement to consolidate domestic support for his second term. If Beijing refuses to work with Tsai, the history of confrontation over the Straits will repeat itself. In a word, Beijing’s Taiwan policy cannot be based on “placing the hope on the Taiwan people and striking down a few Taiwan independence supporters”, but should place the hope in the DPP led by Tsai instead. The DPP, interestingly, has become a key buffer between Beijing and the young Taiwanese.
Yu-Hua Chen is a PhD student at the Australian National University