By: Lauren Dickey
At her May 20th inauguration, President Tsai Ing-wen tiptoed around two words of utmost importance to Beijing: 1992 Consensus. This consensus is what Beijing has, in recent years, deemed to be the political foundation for cross-Strait engagement and rapprochement. Neither accepting nor repudiating the 1992 Consensus was a risky move for the new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, and one with potential repercussions for the next four years.
China maintains that it has a clear and consistent policy toward Taiwan, and one that is grounded in the 1992 Consensus. Tsai’s delicate treatment of the Consensus was a move shaped by Taiwanese domestic politics, but one that is likely to send cross-Strait relations into a cool peace, at least for now. It is in the interest of the United States and other countries with ties to Taiwan to ensure that the Tsai administration is able to lead the island nation free from external pressures and coercion. And it is further in the interest of the international community to ensure Taiwan feels safe and secure in doing so. Rather than a full-blown normalisation of relations, policymakers should advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion at the international level and further support Taiwan’s indigenous defence push in ways that align with the ‘rebalance’. Additionally, the United States and its partners and allies should look to engage economically with Taiwan through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other similar initiatives.
Any worrying on the issue of cross-Strait relations must begin with the 1992 Consensus. It is a term former Kuomintang (KMT) Mainland Affairs Council minister Su Chi admitted he made up in order to shelve stumbling blocks and in pursuit of more meaningful discussions. Nearly twenty-five years later, what does this Consensus offer to ties across the Strait? It is still an agreement to disagree; both Beijing and Taipei – and subsequently the KMT and DPP – hold different definitions of the purported consensus. Under former President Ma Ying-jeou, it was his explicit acceptance of the 1992 Consensus as the irreplaceable political basis for cross-Strait interaction that created momentum for last year’s historic Ma-Xi meeting. But, at the end of it all, surveys show that Ma became the most disliked politician in Taiwan. His administration’s read of the 1992 Consensus clearly did not win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese population.
Tsai is taking a markedly different tactic to the 1992 Consensus, but still has yet to appease Beijing’s demands. Long before her inauguration, she extended an olive branch: a recognition of the historic meeting between the two sides in 1992. In her inaugural speech, Tsai again recognised the ‘historical fact’ of a meeting in 1992, even as she outlined her administration’s intention to conduct relations with Beijing in accordance with Taiwan’s constitution and the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. Tsai has made a case to conduct cross-Strait ties in accordance with the island’s democratic will, a bitter pill for Beijing to swallow. Indeed, the PRC State Council Office for Taiwan Affairs acknowledged the comments of Taiwan’s ‘new leader’ but criticised her vague approach as an ‘incomplete test answer’ given the absence of a clear acknowledgment of the 1992 Consensus.
As if to add more fuel to the fire, Tsai’s inaugural speech was laced with other terms far less palatable to Beijing. She referred to Taiwan as ‘this country’ (where her predecessor, Ma, referred to ‘Taiwan’ or the ‘Republic of China’); and, particularly important, in sketching out plans for how she seeks to spearhead the island’s economic rejuvenation, she stated that Taiwan could no longer be dependent on a singular market. No names need to be mentioned, nor fingers pointed, given the reality of Taiwan’s economic dependence upon mainland China’s market.
The months leading up to Tsai’s inauguration saw attempts from Beijing to put the squeeze on Taipei in various forms. From Gambia finally shifting recognition to Beijing (after cutting its Taiwan ties in 2013), to the extradition of Taiwanese criminals in both Kenya and Malaysia, to an invitation for Taipei to observe this year’s World Health Assembly, Beijing’s ‘one China’ narrative at the global level seems to be alive and well. In the cross-Strait relationship, tourism numbers have continued to decline, and farming exports have come under closer scrutiny – or, in the case of a recent pineapple shipment, outright rejection due to ‘excessive pesticide residues.’ The People’s Liberation Army also held exercises in Fujian province on the opposite side of the Strait in the days leading up Tsai’s inauguration. Chinese intimidation tactics and pressure on Taiwan’s international space and economy is but likely to continue; a strategic action presumably aimed at bullying the DPP to a point where it falls out of power in the 2020 presidential elections.
To be certain, there is plenty to worry about in terms of what the next four years hold for Taiwan. A Taiwanese government that cannot pull its economy out of current doldrums or sufficiently promote the welfare of its people has ripple effects for the world, least of which is the global supply chain; and in terms of cross-Strait ties, Tsai’s dodging of the 1992 Consensus may backfire. Even if a full-blown conflict (and Chinese occupation) remains out of reach for now, we should still worry, albeit proactively, about Taiwan. The next four years will not see the United States abandon its time-honoured, strategically ambiguous approach to ‘one China’ in favour of normalising ties with Taiwan. But this is not to say that steps to strengthen ties with Taiwan in the face of any future menacing behaviour from China should not be taken. Rather than ignoring Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan, the United States and others are poised to encourage a strategic ‘rethink’ of the common narrative framing Taiwan as a provocateur under a pro-Taiwan administration. Western policymakers should also quietly advocate for Beijing and Taipei to find a new norm on which to deepen cross-Strait engagement. Taiwan is both a strategic asset and an opportunity for the West – policymakers must be willing to treat it as such.
Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore where her research focuses on Chinese strategy toward Taiwan under Xi Jinping. She is also a member of the Young Leaders program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
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 Transcript of President Ma Ying-jeou address to Mainland Affairs Council (29 April 2015), http://english.president.gov.tw/Default.aspx?tabid=491&rmid=2355&itemid=34609.
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 Full text of President Tsai’s inaugural address (20 May 2016), http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201605200008.aspx.
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