by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: Presidential Office
Attempts by Tsai to Appear More Flexible Than China
THE RECENT SUSPENSION of communications between Taiwan and China is not, in fact, anything particularly surprising. To begin with, as pointed out by Ben Goren on Twitter, the suspension of communications between Taiwan and China now making the news is not actually new news. News of downgraded ties between Taiwan and China makes the English-language news now that Tsai Ing-Wen is now making her first visit to America in her capacity as president of Taiwan.
Likewise, the suspension of communications between Taiwan and China does not mean that Taiwan and China will not communicate. After all, even during the era of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, Taiwan and China were in communications through intermediaries in Hong Kong, just not at the official level. As such, we can hardly expect the cessation of all communications altogether.
Thus, in the present, what we see is a downgrading of relations between Taiwan and China because Tsai Ing-Wen has not hewed to the “One China Principle” as closely as China would like. Tsai Ing-Wen’s formulation of acknowledging the “historical fact of the 1992 talks” but not the consensus itself was intended to secure herself enough wiggle room to avoid backlash from her own party without rejecting the 1992 Consensus outright. This would have been overly provocative of China, as well as political independents who are not ideological adherents to either the pan-Blue or pan-Green camp within Taiwan.
As Jon Sullivan has suggested, this may represent the beginning of a “gradual turn of the screw” and “drip by drip” strategies against Taiwan by Beijing. Notably, there was some period of time before China began to take gradual measures against Tsai, because at first it was not actually very clear to China as to what Tsai’s stance would be on the “One China Principle”. Tsai signaled ahead of time that she did not intend to veer away from the ROC framework or constitution as president during her victory speech after January 2016 elections. But after ambiguous statements referring to “the historical fact of the 1992 talks” in her inauguration speech but not the “1992 Consensus”, China first called on Tsai to clarify her ambiguous stance before later moving to outright condemnation.
China’s strategy will probably be to seek to marginalize Taiwan through the perception of worsening ties. With further political and economic constraints placed on Taiwan through worsening Taiwan-China relations, this can shrink the amount of space for Taiwan to maneuver in the international sphere. If the Chinese government is smart about it does this, it will seek to do this gradually.
On the other hand, Tsai’s strategy would probably be to appeal to the international sphere on the basis of Chinese overreactions against Taiwan. Taiwan must never appear as the aggressor in aggravating cross-strait relations. Rather, China’s actions must be perceived as Chinese aggression against Taiwan through China’s inflexibility and refusal to compromise, not Taiwan’s.
Tsai’s deliberate ambiguity regarding the 1992 Consensus would be an example, with Tsai compromising by at least acknowledging the “historical facts of the 1992 talks,” but China remaining inflexible in demanding firm acknowledgement of the “One China Principle.” Tsai recognizing the “historical facts of the 1992 talks” if not the “1992 Consensus” itself is already a reversal in some sense. Historically, the DPP has never acknowledged the 1992 Consensus as anything except something invented post-facto by the KMT, as was later admitted to be the truth by KMT politician and former Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council Su Chi, who coined the term to begin with.
Indeed, obviously the actual facts of the matter are that China is the aggressor here, but the international community has the tendency of seeing Taiwan as in fact being the aggressor when cross-strait ties suffer between Taiwan and China. Chen Shui-Bian came to be seen by many international commentators as a dangerous aggressor in provoking cross-strait tensions between Taiwan and China, for example, through public statements seen as too provocative in baiting China—never mind that China was the one with overwhelming military force directed at Taiwan.
In this sense, Taiwan suffers from a problem of victim-blaming. So, then, in seeking to avoid being perceived as a second Chen Shui-Bian, would Tsai’s strategy probably be aimed at making the international community recognizing Taiwan as a victim here, rather than the aggressor.
Possibility of Backlash Against Tsai Through Too Ambiguous or Too Compromising Political Stances
HOWEVER WE WILL see as to whether Tsai’s strategy succeeds. It is a possibility that if Tsai is in fact too compromising or too ambiguous and she fails to sufficiently distinguish her statements from the KMT, she will lose her support base. The KMT will be able to point to Tsai as having damaged relations with China because of Chinese fulminations against her. Yet they will be able to appeal to independent voters who may be willing to give the KMT another shot, if it appears as though Tsai’s messaging does not actually seem substantially different from the KMT’s but cross-strait ties have suffered under her nonetheless. China itself may be banking on this.
After all, the collapse of second parties in recently democratized, former one-party systems often comes from when that second party fails to sufficiently distinguish itself from the former ruling party under the one party system, leading to voters voting for the former sole ruling party because it offers greater promises of stability than the second party. Tsai being too wishy-washy in pursuing tactics of strategic ambiguity on cross-strait relations can actually be damaging to her in the long run, if Tsai is perceived as too hesitant to take decisive stances on key political issues.
Though Japan never had an authoritarian period, this is what we largely see in Japan with a return to rule by the Liberal Democratic Party in the last decade, for example, the Liberal Democratic Party having largely ruled as the sole ruling party after World War II until the rise of the Democratic Party of Japan. For Taiwan, which does have a history of authoritarian rule, South Korea in the present offers the rather stark example of where the daughter of the former military dictator comes to rule at the head of far right political forces, after a period in which the political opposition which arose from the Korean democracy movement was able to grasp political power. While rather early to prognosticate in the case of the Tsai administration, this remains wholly possible in Taiwan, in examination of the broader political trends in the region.
In particular, because of the missteps to date of the Tsai administration on many domestic issues, we are seeing backlash against the Tsai administration growing. The Liberty Times, for example, recently put out an editorial accusing the DPP of possibly becoming a second KMT, which we should take as a major sign of discontents within Tsai’s support base, the Liberty Times being the leading pan-Green media outlet. The Tsai administration has, for example, waffled on central issues as that of signing trade bills with China, nuclear energy, and transitional justice, failing to demonstrate significant differences from a KMT administration on key issues as these.
So, we will see as to the future of the Tsai administration, which does in fact look to be increasingly embattled from within. Namely, bending like a reed in the wind in order to put on a show of political moderatism can also have negative political implications, if one fails to also indicate that one will take firm stances when needed.