When the unassuming, cat-loving law scholar Tsai Ing-Wen was inaugurated in May as Taiwan’s first woman president—and only the second not to come from the dominant Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party—the world uneasily waited to hear how she would define Taiwan’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since taking office, President Tsai has taken a comparatively less pro-Beijing stance than her predecessor, KMT-aligned former mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-Jeou.
In an October 5 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Tsai reiterated that Taiwan would not bow to Chinese pressure. She also stated that Taiwan would “do [its] very best to let the world see Taiwan and take Taiwan’s existence seriously,” emphasizing Taiwan’s past and present economic importance in East Asia and its status as a hub of innovation in the region.
Tsai’s address on October 10, Taiwan’s National Day, extolled Taiwan’s democratic society and commitment to transitional justice nearly 30 years after the end of martial law. She also emphasized Taiwan’s global outlook, mentioning diplomatic ties with Latin American countries and efforts to participate in the international community. While Tsai’s speech was chiefly focused on domestic reform, her enumeration of Taiwan’s forays onto the world stage since taking office signals that Taiwan is forging an identity and purpose distinct from the PRC.
But most tellingly, since her inauguration, Tsai has refused to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit agreement between Taipei and Beijing that suggests there is “one China,” though the two sides interpret that definition differently. This consensus stems from a decades-long political schism, civil war, and stalemate between the Kuomintang, which ruled China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the Chinese Communist Party, which in 1949 overthrew the KMT. After the overthrow, the KMT then fled to Taiwan, which had been a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. Both parties claim to be the legitimate rulers of one united China—Taiwan and the mainland.
“In the majority of her public statements concerning cross-strait relations, Tsai has emphasized that she will uphold the status quo as she pledged during her campaign, and that the Taiwanese government’s goodwill toward the PRC is unchanged. As the November summit illustrates, Beijing may not be fully convinced.”
Beijing regards the Consensus as the foundation for any engagement with Taipei. During the Ma administration, the KMT’s support of the Consensus helped establish a period of detente with the PRC. However, Tsai’s DPP, which generally supports Taiwanese independence, rejects the consensus. In her speech on October 10, Tsai referred to the “historical fact” that officials from Taiwan and the PRC met in 1992, but stopped short of acknowledging the Consensus itself.
However, Tsai has softened her comparatively less conciliatory stances by pairing them with friendlier overtures to Beijing. On October 5, Tsai announced that James Soong, leader of the pro-China People First Party, would represent Taiwan at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in Peru this November. On November 1, KMT party chair Hung Hsiu-chu met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where President Xi made it clear Taiwan must acknowledge the Consensus.
In a speech on October 9, just before Taiwan’s National Day celebrations, Tsai reiterated her and the Taiwanese government’s commitment to reopening a dialogue with the mainland and building a “consistent, sustainable, and predictable cross-strait relationship.” In the majority of her public statements concerning cross-strait relations, Tsai has emphasized that she will uphold the status quo as she pledged during her campaign, and that the Taiwanese government’s goodwill toward the PRC is unchanged. As the November summit illustrates, Beijing may not be fully convinced.
While the Philippines under controversial President Rodrigo Duterte has come out swinging in its pivot away from Washington and toward Moscow and Beijing, Taiwan is taking a far more cautious approach to shifting its position on the world stage. As a democratically elected leader, Tsai must represent the platform of her party (and of a significant portion of Taiwanese voters), and therefore cannot afford to antagonize Beijing.
“While Tsai’s cautious, ambivalent approach to cross-straits relations may be pragmatic, especially in a time of serious political instability in East Asia and beyond, it may cost her political and popular support within Taiwan and put relations with the mainland further on ice.”
However, Tsai’s quiet move away from her predecessor’s friendlier approach toward Beijing has cooled relations considerably. Communications between Taipei and Beijing have been mostly cut off since Tsai’s inauguration in May. In September, Taiwan was not invited to attend the annual International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) conference in Montreal—a move considered to be due to Beijing’s pressure. In addition, Taiwanese political activists, including a DPP official, have been blocked from visiting Hong Kong.
In Taiwan, Tsai’s popular approval rating has slumped since her election. Cross-strait diplomatic spats have caused mainland tourism to plummet. Business owners who rely on tourism have excoriated Tsai over their loss of income, and pro-independence activists and thinkers have become frustrated by what they perceive as Tsai’s inaction. However, Bonnie Glaser, senior advisor for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says Tsai will likely not concede to the stridently pro-independence “deep Greens” and, as she has repeatedly stated in her public speeches, maintain the status quo—a stance that the United States has welcomed.
The KMT, now an opposition party, has joined in criticizing Tsai. This year, some top KMT officials declined to attend National Day ceremonies in Taipei, and cautioned against “unconstitutional separatism.” At her summit with President Xi on November 1, Hung Hsiu-chu stated Tsai’s government had caused “dangerous turmoil.”
While Tsai’s cautious, ambivalent approach to cross-straits relations may be pragmatic, especially in a time of serious political instability in East Asia and beyond, it may cost her political and popular support within Taiwan and put relations with the mainland further on ice. On the other hand, a Duterte-style doctrine would cost Tsai, and the people of Taiwan, much more.
Although it is far from an ideal or permanent solution, Tsai’s best bet for now may be to stay her course until circumstances change. To borrow a lyric from the hit musical Hamilton, Tsai may not be standing still, but lying in wait.
Image: Tsai Ing-wen speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC on June 3, 2015 (Creative Commons, CSIS, Flickr)
Jocelyn Spencer is a graduate of Wesleyan University and University College London, Institute of Education. She specializes academically in Chinese history and politics and in language education policy. While studying for her MA in London, she was a project leader and intern for the think tank Project for the Study of the 21st Century, for which she continues to volunteer in the United States. She currently works for a private equity firm in New York City.