Tumultuous Tidings From Taiwan

Tsai Ing-wen, the presidential candidate of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, won 16 January a landslide victory in both the presidential and legislative elections over Eric Chu of the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party. With her victory, Tsai promised a ‘new era of politics in Taiwan’. Such a statement carries enormous consequence due to the key geopolitical issues surrounding Taiwan, most notably that of the historic fight for independence from mainland China. Unlike the KMT party, which has enforced pro-China economic policies and pushed for closer ties with the mainland under former president Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai ran on a pro-independence platform and ‘capitalised’ on voter discontent with Ma’s administration. A ‘pro-independence’ stance positions Tsai for an ongoing uphill battle when it comes to balancing Taiwan’s sovereignty and maintaining stable cross-strait relations with Beijing. She will have to deal with hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing and with the call for more autonomy coming from her own constituents. International scrutiny is now on Tsai, and her next actions with regard to Beijing will define the next decade, if not more, of East Asian politics.

Image courtesy of David Reid © 2015, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of David Reid © 2015, some rights reserved.

For nearly a decade, the ‘1992 Consensus’ has been the playbook for both Beijing’s and Taipei’s cross-strait policies and back in 2012, when the KMT was still in power, the South China Morning Post reported that it was ‘here to stay’. The mutual understanding dictates that while both sides recognise that there is only one China, each government can have its own interpretation on which government is legitimate. Beijing considers itself the legitimate People’s Republic of China, while Taipei considers itself the legitimate Republic of China. While the debate for legitimacy has continued between both sides, this consensus has been a valuable tool for maintaining mutually beneficial policies between the two administrations. Because the ‘1992 Consensus’ can be interpreted differently in order to appease both sides, both administrations have been able to largely overlook questions of sovereignty in favour of focusing on practical issues, creating a number of valuable economic agreements and encouraging the highly profitable tourism trade that has strengthened the economies, and the ties, of and between both states.

The rift between China and Taiwan formed in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, when Communist leader Mao Zedong drove the National Party and its leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, to Taiwan. The Communist Party rose to power in 1927 after discontent rose from Chiang’s ‘Northern Expedition’. The alliance between the Nationalists and Communists that had kept the warring ideologies in harmony fell apart when the Nationalist Party attempted a series of leftist purges and quelled urban Communist uprisings. While hostilities cooled following the Japanese invasion of 1937, where both sides found a common enemy, they re-ignited in 1946 after Japan’s surrender. The KMT enjoyed massive success in 1946, even taking the Communist capital of Yan’an, but the successful Communist counter-offensive from the end of 1947 until the end of 1949 heavily damaged morale and confidence in Chiang’s administration. In December 1949 a Communist victory was declared when the KMT fled to Taiwan, thereby creating two Chinas, each considering them self to be the legitimate administration.

Beijing has been relatively quiet in regards to Tsai’s election in the face of fiery rhetoric from Tsai stating she will not use the term ‘1992 Consensus’. It is not known as of yet whether she simply refuses to use the language or if this means that she will not maintain the ‘one China’ policy. The world will scrutinize Tsai at her 20 May inauguration ceremony, where her choice of language will be dissected and a more concrete statement from Beijing will likely be released. The Business Spectator reports that, if Tsai decides on a more ‘splittist’ agenda against Beijing, there is possibility of a hostile, even militarist, reaction from Chinese president Xi Jingping’s administration. So far, the only statement to be released by the mainland’s official State Council Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) states ‘our fundamental policy on Taiwan is consistent and clear… We will continue to adhere to the “1992 Consensus”, and resolutely oppose any form of “Taiwan independence” separatist activities.’

With its territorial disputes in the South China Sea and its slowing economy, Beijing is not looking to make any more enemies, however, its reaction all hinges on Tsai’s next move. While Tsai ran on a more conservative platform in regards to cross-strait relations than some of her colleagues in the legislative branch, she will have to deal with many colleagues who will push for a hardline stance on the issue of sovereignty. The Xi administration has shown they are not afraid to exercise muscle should Tsai decide to change the status quo, and has threatened that should Taiwan declare formal independence, they should expect the mainland to attempt to take it back by force. Xi has even called it the ‘China dream’ for cross-strait reunification to happen. The election of Tsai more or less kills that dream, although the Beijing’s initial post-election statements reflected a very pragmatic response.

Many, however, are unsure how long this response will last once Tsai is in office. For one, Tsai’s refusal to use the terminology of the ‘1992 Consensus’ is troubling as the ‘hallucination’ of a one China has been a cornerstone of cross-strait relations. In this respect, China really holds all the cards. Diplomatically, Taipei is only recognized by 21 countries as the legitimate Chinese government, and Beijing’s aggressive attempts to keep Taipei out of free-trade agreements and multilateral organisations have only deepened Taiwan’s isolation in today’s globalised world. With a report from The Economist estimating twenty-five per cent of Taiwan’s exports going to the mainland and nearly forty per cent of Taiwan’s tourists being Chinese nationals, economic sanctions from Beijing would cripple Taiwan’s economy.

What is clear is that once Tsai is inaugurated, she will be hit with pressure from all sides, from needing to keep hardline colleagues in her party in line so as to not aggrieve Beijing to maintaining the more ‘pro-independence’ platform that got her elected. The following months will be a key time of transition for Taiwan, and any wrong moves could find Taiwan isolated and trading hostilities with one of the world’s most greatest powers. Tsai faces a difficult task redefining a highly contested line, but it is without doubt that should she succeed in changing the status quo, East Asian politics will not remain the same.

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