Tsai Ing-wen has been inaugurated as Taiwan’s new president. It was a momentous occasion, marking not only the transition from Kuomintang (KMT) party rule to that of the Democratic Progressive Party, but also the first time that a woman has assumed the presidency and that the DPP has held power in both the legislative and executive branches. Tsai’s ascendency is a triumph for Taiwan’s democracy, but it is also a challenge to the government in Beijing. While neither side seeks conflict, there are seemingly irreconcilable tensions between them. Both must be patient and be prepared to compromise to ensure that the Taiwan Strait does not again become a regional flashpoint. Thus far, the signs are not promising.
Cross-strait relations have been calm for the last eight years during the tenure of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma, a member of the KMT, has sought to build stronger, more durable ties between China and Taiwan. Critics charge that he seeks to reunite the island, which Beijing considers a renegade province, with the mainland, a claim that he has dismissed. He understands that Taipei and Beijing must have a working relationship if Taiwan is to prosper. The reality of power and politics within Asia means that Taiwan cannot ignore Chinese views.
That is a departure from the thinking of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, a member of the DPP and vocal proponent of Taiwan independence. Chen’s tenure was marred by controversy and tension, not only between Taipei and Beijing, which considered him a threat to Chinese unity and thus the legitimacy of the Beijing government, but also between Taipei and Washington, which feared cross-strait tensions would drag it into conflict with China.
Beijing — and many governments in the region — fear that a Tsai presidency will return to the tensions of the Chen years. The new president is working assiduously to reassure friends of Taiwan that she understands the stakes. But she is also, as a member of the DPP, committed to creating as much international space for Taiwan as possible — and indeed favors independence and will lean in that direction in her policies.
The first test came during her inauguration on May 20. China has insisted that a mutually beneficial cross-strait relationship is possible only if Tsai acknowledges the so-called 1992 Consensus, a reputed agreement between representatives of the two governments reached that year and says there is only “one China” of which China and Taiwan are a part. (The consensus is “reputed” because there was no actual agreement between the two sides, merely overlapping language in separate documents.)
The KMT acknowledges the consensus because many in the party believe that there is just one China and seek reunification. The DPP, however, fervently disagrees and had insisted that the consensus does not exist, and that the party and its representative do not agree with the very notion of “one China.” Tsai herself has avoided use of the phrase, not only because she believes in Taiwan independence, but because any endorsement of it would cost her the backing of her party.
Tsai is also a political realist, however, and recognizes the limits on her freedom of maneuver both domestically and internationally. The question, then, is how far must she go in acknowledging the 1992 Consensus. How clear must she be and what sort of ambiguity will Beijing permit? While Tsai has clearly moved toward some recognition of the validity of the consensus, she has refused to explicitly say that phrase nor concede that there is “one China.”
Beijing is not content with the evolution of her views and has insisted that she specifically acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. In short, there is no trust between her (and her party) and Beijing, and thus no room for compromise.
In her inaugural address, she acknowledged that “over 20 years of interactions and negotiations across the strait have enabled and accumulated outcomes which both sides must collectively cherish and sustain.” She pointed to “existing realities and political foundations” that gird “the stable and peaceful development of the cross-strait relationship [which] must be continuously promoted.” That is not the explicit reference that Beijing seeks but it is a formula that she has used before and would seem to include the ideas that Beijing seeks to build upon.
Other references in her speech should give the mainland cause for hope. Tsai said that she was “elected president in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of China,” a document that refers only to one China. Moreover, her pledge to “conduct cross-strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation” implies that there is “one China” — of which there are two “areas.” Most significantly, Tsai aims to promote “a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences.”
Beijing was not assuaged, and chastised Tsai for being “ambiguous about the fundamental issue, the nature of cross-straits relations.” The mainland has demanded an explicit response. It will not get one. Tsai cannot be seen as knuckling under to the mainland’s bullying, nor should she. She appears ready to find a compromise that preserves both sides’ dignity without capitulating. Beijing should meet her halfway.
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