Tsai Ying Wen’s China Problem

In the many years of tradition that constitute the governing of the civilizational concept that is China, Chinese leaders, endowed with a history that they have always claimed stretches at least five thousand years into the past, have leaned toward action that takes into account the long view of history in pursuit of their goals. In contrast to other, younger political entities that tend to rush forward with vigor and abandon in pursuit of their immediate objectives, the Chinese have traditionally opted to strengthen their position gradually and consolidate their power in increments, biding their time until the best course of action has been circumscribed. In pursuit of a strengthening of its position as the more responsible representation of the entity that formally calls itself “the Republic of China”, more colloquially know as Taiwan, the ruling KMT party arranged a much-discussed meeting between its head, Chairman Eric Chu, and the president of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in Beijing last Monday to discuss topics of mutual interests to the two parties that both claim to represent the same nation. Though the two sides have remained in contact through informal channels since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and the subsequent exile of the KMT to the island of Taiwan, such a high level meeting has not occurred for several decades, and has renewed discussion on the future of the political status of Taiwan, particularly in light of the upcoming 2016 Taiwanese general elections.

As Brian Hioe argues in his article “Looking Back on the Chu-Xi Debacle”, the substance of the meeting came to very little that had not already been stated by the each nation at some point in the past: namely, an upholding of the so called “1992 Consensus” and a commitment to greater cooperation in economic and regional affairs. Rather, the meeting seems to boil down to a well-orchestrated piece of political theater, one that serves to legitimize the actions of both sides. China for its part, and in particular Xi Jinping, once again showed their mastery of statecraft that assuages the fears of a hostile takeover of Taiwan in the near future and keeps the international community from panic, all the while never stepping down an inch from its stated intention of eventual political and territorial integration of Taiwan into the PRC. Xi seems to follow closely in the footsteps of his predecessors who, though never conceding to the idea of an independent Taiwan, carefully avoided stoking the flames of conflict to the point of action.Though Xi has taken it upon himself to state that he believes that a resolution to the question of the political status of Taiwan will come to fruition by the end of his term, in action the PRC President seems much more intent upon affairs within his own country, consolidating his power within the party by purging corrupt officials and launching his initiative to bring about the fulfillment of a “Chinese Dream”, an as yet vague vision of the future of Chinese society.

This game of aggressive rhetoric subsequently followed by a subsequent denouement of tension dates back as far as even the Mao era, when the Chairman casually mentioned to Henry Kissinger that China was willing to wait a hundred years to resolve the Taiwan question, content to gradually grow in strength and influence until a more ripe time. Indeed, even the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the most white-knuckle event in cross-strait relations for the past decade, seems mostly to have been a display of calculated political power rather than a true existential threat to Taiwan. The Chinese game of circumscription seems well in play at this point in its foreign policy, for, despite its symbolic place as the ultimate goal of Chinese territorial expansion, the bulk of China’s recent land disputes have centered around the South China Sea, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, and the ambiguous “nine-dashed line”. It seems that, at the present moment, the Chinese plan to continue to strengthen their anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the region while deepening their economic and cultural integration with Taiwan in pursuit of eventual unification. Of course, any party with a major stake in the Asia Pacific region who would completely rule out the possibility of Chinese military action in pursuit of a resolution to the Taiwan question does so injudiciously and at its own peril, but, for at least the present, China seems intent upon exploring more palatable options in pursuit of its long sought after goal of unification.

For its part, the KMT, having received a solid defeat at the polls in the 2014 midterm elections, gains credibility for its willingness to seek cooperation with China in economic and political matters in lieu of conflict over identity politics. The low levels of support for the current KMT administration on Taiwan has led to the need for renewal within the party ranks and the presentation of a unified message that will appeal to alienated voters. President Ma Ying-jeou, current Taiwanese head of state and a member of the KMT, resigned his chairmanship of the party late last year as a gesture of responsibility for his party’s sounding defeat, and in the intervening months the party has taken steps to distance itself from him. Chu, a popular figure who has managed to hold onto the mayorship of Taiwan’s most populous city even as his party suffered major losses, presents for the KMT an opportunity to reorganize and rehabilitate their damaged image. From this perspective, the KMT seems intent upon proving to voters that they can successfully navigate the quagmire of cross-strait relations in a way that both benefits Taiwanese society while preventing Taiwan from being subsumed by China on China’s terms.

For Taiwan, having a relationship with China that both brings them substantial benefit while at the same time avoiding a denigration of their self-determination involves walking a precarious tight rope between the practicalities of international relations and the polarizing nature of Taiwanese domestic politics. The failed bid to join the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the ruling party’s most recent attempt to extract a tangible benefit from the relationship between the two parties, proves how complicated this sort of maneuvering can be within the tenuous environment of cross strait politics. Though conceivably beneficial to the Taiwanese economy in terms of positioning themselves downstream of the flow of expanding Chinese wealth, the resulting failure to join the bank as a founding member hurt the island nation’s perception as an active participant in regional affairs and embarrassed the administration internationally. Even more humiliating for the KMT lies the fact that the rejection came even after the government acquiesced to the Chinese demand that Taiwan file their application for membership through the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office rather than through their central bank, the requirement for every other state seeking to join the bank as a founding member. Additionally, this mishandling of Taiwan on the regional and international stage sent blowback reeling through the domestic political environment, with several spontaneous anti-government protests breaking out around Taipei in the wake of the AIIB debacle.

The importance of identity politics cannot be overemphasized within the context of the Taiwanese political environment, and a careful choice of language when describing the exact nature of the Taiwanese identity has swayed many an election. In March of 2014, the KMT leveraged their control of the legislature to pass with minimal debate or review a trade service agreement with China that would greatly expand the number of industries open to cross-strait trade. As a result, an angry crowd of Taiwanese, mostly led by students, forcibly broke into the legislature and occupied the chamber for nearly an entire month, effectively shutting down the Taiwanese parliamentary system before in what has become popularized in the Taiwanese political scene as the Sunflower Movement. Though in part a protest over the KMT’s handling of the passage of the bill in not sufficiently allowing the opposition and members of the general public to review and debate its point, this movement’s greater intent became a display of anti-China sentiment and an affirmation that the younger generation of Taiwan supports a distinct Taiwanese identity disconnected from that of China, unlike many of their parents and grandparents’ generations who, despite being born and raised on the island, still identify themselves as at least partially Chinese by cultural heritage.

In the midst of this recent surge of a vocal Taiwanese identity looms the 2016 general election, in which the opposition DPP party, building upon its momentous gains at the local and legislative level, stands to sweep the national election and install Tsai Ying-wen as the next Taiwanese president. Tsai, who ran and lost against Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 elections, has been building a broad array of support among the electorate and seemingly faces little opposition in her path to the presidency. Her most challenging opponent, Chairman Chu, has already stated his intention to not seek the presidency in the upcoming elections and, should general political trends continue in their current direction, it seems almost certain that Ms. Tsai will have little trouble leading her party to yet another victory in the following year.

It is in this context that the KMT must now seek to play out their strategy in the long term, as they certainly realize that they stand little chance of fielding a candidate that can best Tsai and assure their party’s continued dominance. With Chu out of the running, the party will most likely nominated a placeholder candidate and will seek to shore up their power in other ways, riding out what they believe will prove a tumultuous DPP administration over the next four years. They may, however, find themselves vindicated, at least in part, by this strategy, as a return to DPP control of the government will most certainly bring about a much more unstable relationship with China, and a subsequently more unstable position for Taiwan in the region. Relations between China and Taiwan fell to a low point during the eight year administration of Chen Shui-bian, previous DPP president of Taiwan during the early 2000’s, with cross-strait tensions only being cooled by the election of Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 and the dramatic opening of economic and travel ties to China during his tenure. The KMT seems intent to bet upon the idea that China’s resistance to cooperating with Ms. Tsai, whose party incorporates within itself a substantial element of pro-Taiwanese independence supporters, will bring about the kind of hardship that will once again make the DPP unpalatable to Taiwanese voters. In pursuit of this goal, the KMT seems in the midst of preparation to take upon itself the unorthodox role of representing the nation internationally despite holding the position of the opposition party over the next four years. The meeting between Chu and Xi this past week seems in part to affirm to Beijing that the KMT is willing to with the CCP heading into the future, regardless of the fact that they face the prospect of yet another brutal defeat at the polls next year. In addition, the CCP also seems to seek to reaffirm its own ties to the KMT and acknowledge that it is the preferred entity through whom it wishes to have contact with Taiwan.

In the midst of this grandiose game of political theater stands the figure of Tsai Ying-wen, upon whose shoulders (assuming the success of her bid for the presidency) stands the mandate of leading the Taiwanese nation through what assuredly will present itself as one of the most difficulty-fraught periods in its modern history. Though the Taiwanese economy managed to leverage its stellar position in the semiconductor industry to pump out spectacular levels of economic growth during its period of democratization throughout the 1990’s (during which it was dubbed on of the “Four Tigers” of Asia), the economic landscape of the Asia Pacific region has undergone drastic change over the last 25 years, and low wages and falling rates of investment have tightened the Taiwanese economy and complicated even more its relationship with China, the economic behemoth of this part of the world. If Ms. Tsai holds fast to her party’s anti-China rhetoric and seeks to halt or even reverse the momentum of the previous administration in seeking deepening trade and investment ties with China, she most assuredly will create a situation in which her government will have to present a new model of economic growth or risk Taiwan being such out of the world economy, a position it simply cannot afford given its already precarious political status. Additionally, she will from day one have to deal with a powerful and entrenched KMT who, despite having suffered a defeat at the hands of the general population, will most certainly attempt to use their close connections to both Beijing and Taiwanese business interests to hamstring her administration before it even leaves the ground.

Tsai must therefore also learn how to take the long view of history and build around her a coalition that will work towards practical solutions to the immediate dilemmas facing Taiwan rather than take purely ideologically-motivated action in pursuit of short term gratification. By continuing to develop economic ties with China while strengthening such governmental oversight entities as can monitor the nature of these activities, a Tsai presidency could continue to benefit from the Chinese economic powerhouse while preserving Taiwan’s self-determination. Additionally, and particularly in the wake of the AIIB debacle, the Tsai government needs to strengthen its standing internationally by reaffirming its commitments with major trade partners and attracting foreign investment in its critical sectors, particularly in the field of technology, in which it already has a competitive advantage. Above all, Tsai must not allow herself to become another Chen Shui-bian and must realize that, despite the at times polarizing nature of Taiwanese domestic politics, the reality of the geopolitical situation in the Asia Pacific seems to ensure that, as China will continue to play a major role in almost every aspect of regional politics and that the CCP is unlikely to collapse in the foreseeable future, dealings with China will remain necessary for the continued survival of Taiwan.

Tsai has often faced pressure from both elements within her country as well as Taiwan’s international benefactors to define her policy toward China in practical terms upon which she can delivers results. Until this point, she has been mostly unwilling to do so, no doubt motivated by concerns about her electability should she commit to any one position concerning the cross strait relationship. She will, however, have no choice but to define her position at some early stage should she ascend to the presidency, and if she does indeed seek to reject the “1992 Consensus” (which the DPP did not agree to and has never acknowledged), her and her party will have to put forth some sort of alternative model while, at the same time, contending with both a hostile Beijing and a KMT bent upon undermining her legitimacy. If the DPP seeks to bring Taiwan through the upcoming period of economic and political uncertainty in a way that strengthens the island nation’s position in the region, it will have to eschew a narrow-minded policy of combative rhetoric coupled with policy inaction and display strong, decisive leadership.


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