by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-Wen Facebook

As we enter 2016 and elections near in Taiwan, this is the second part of a two-part article about KMT candidate Eric Chu and DPP candidate Tsai Ing-Wen and their respective predecessors. The first part can be read here.

EVEN IF IT MAY be that Tsai’s victory in the present seems all but inevitable, Tsai faces certain uphill challenges once president. Such challenges ultimately stem from international perceptions of the first DPP presidency under Chen Shui-Bian. The DPP is still seen as a dangerous troublemaker that threatens to disrupt cross-strait relations on the basis of its ideological pro-independence fanaticism on the basis of Chen Shui-Bian’s presidency.

Certainly, the KMT has leveraged on this fact in its attempts to discredit Tsai so far, although with the weakness of its own candidates, this has not been very successful. The KMT has maintained that it is the only political party in Taiwan able to maintain stability in the Taiwan Straits, for example, with attempts by the KMT to play up its special, historical party-to-party relation with the CCP as we saw in the Ma-Xi summit. But this has largely backfired in the year of protest in which Taiwan’s young stood up against perceived attempts by the KMT to sell out Taiwan to China through backroom deals.

Yet as it is in established narrative in international media that the DPP is a dangerous, pro-independence force out to disrupt cross-strait stability. Despite not shortage of moves by Tsai aimed at suggesting that she would not be so disruptive to cross-strait relations, it seems that Tsai currently has no way of avoiding this perception which is a product of the legacy of the Chen Shui-Bian era. Though very possible, given Tsai’s skill in public image management in this campaign to date, Tsai will have to effect a turnabout in public image in order to reverse this lingering perception of the DPP.

PhotoCreditUSDppTsai meeting with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Photo credit: DPP International

In truth, it is somewhat ridiculous for those that do in fact explicitly endorse Taiwanese independence that Tsai is taken as a dangerous pro-independence ideologue. After all, though certainly not the first time this has happened in the past two decades, under Tsai that the DPP saw renewed internal conflict over whether or not to drop the pro-independence clause of its constitution, one of the last remnants of the DPP’s origins in the dangwai movement to form a political party in Taiwan outside of the KMT.

But the perception that Tsai is dangerously pro-independence is widespread, not only among international media but among Washington policymakers. Close to two decades ago, during Lee Teng-Hui’s presidency, Tsai was leader of secret study group organized by Lee to search out means for Taiwan to establish a legal basis for Taiwanese independence. This was a study group that not even Lien Chan, Lee’s vice president, was aware of. It remains on the basis of such past precedents that Tsai is perceived as dangerously pro-independence. [1]

Despite retrenchment on the issue of independence under her leadership of the DPP, it is interesting to note that as a presidential candidate Tsai had won over the loyalty of the old Taiwanese independence faction within the DPP as its best hope against the KMT. Some take this as indicating Tsai’s real political position, in the manner of the critics who claim that Tsai’s claim that she will maintain the status quo hides a pro-independence position. But, really, who can say as to what Tsai’s true views are, outside of the needs of political posturing? Does it actually matter? Tsai will conduct her policy on the basis of what seem to be the needs of the moment.

And if it is obvious fact that Tsai will not be another Chen Shui-Bian, there would seem to be little way to work against the perception that she is the second Chen Shui-Bian. So if Tsai makes moves “KMT-ize”—to go out of her way to show to America and other powers that she is not a threat to stable cross-strait relationships even if this means some form of capitulation—that would not be entirely surprising. Chen’s long shadow is in this way inescapable for Tsai. In order to try and escape it, will Tsai be willing to capitulate where the stance of Taiwanese independence is concerned? Perhaps.

The sword of Damocles which hangs over Tsai seems to be that Tsai must navigate the dilemma of coming up with a new form of status quo which is in some way “beyond” the 1992 Consensus but preserves its fundamental tenets. The recent arms sale after a drought of several years may be taken as a sign that America wishes to maintain Taiwan as part of its security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific, but China’s hackles were raised from the beginning by the fact that a DPP and not KMT president seems like the frontrunner in this election, and such tensions will only be exacerbated in the future. But Tsai must find some way to satisfy all involved parties—including China.

PhotoCreditDPPTsai giving a statement regarding the Ma-Xi meeting which took place in November. Photo credit: DPP International

Indeed, Tsai must also answer to Taiwanese in the year after the Sunflower Movement, which has illustrated how Taiwanese clearly are not happy with the policies of the KMT which serve to draw Taiwan uncomfortably close to China. But Taiwanese would not enjoy it either if she provoked, say, a missile crisis with China as occurred during the Chen Shui-Bian administration. Thus, if it has provocatively been suggested that Tsai will in fact continue trade policies from the Ma administration, this would not be surprising, as a result of attempting to allay this legacy of the Chen administration.

If it is that Sunflower Movement activists have in the past year raised the possibility of the DPP becoming something resembling the KMT in the future, such fears have sometimes been dismissed as irrational on the basis of the fact that the KMT has always had more financial resources and more extensive local networks than the KMT. Yet if Chen attempted to do too much, too quick where asserting Taiwanese independence was concerned, this will not be the same mistake Tsai makes. And whether of her own choice or out of necessity, Tsai may in fact prove rather conservative in this regard.

[1] Andrew James Nathan and James Scobell, China’s Search for Security, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 232.

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