by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: VOA

WHAT DOES Hung Hsiu-Chu intend to achieve with her upcoming visit to the US in January? Most likely, the timing of the trip is because Hung’s ideological rival, current president Tsai Ing-Wen, will make a stopover in the US in January en route to an official diplomatic visit with Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, four of the 21 remaining countries which still acknowledge the sovereignty of the Republic of China. While it known that Tsai will meet with US government officials during her stopover, it has been rumored that Tsai will meet with US president-elect Donald Trump. Although such a meeting is highly unlikely, such rumors come after the diplomatic shake-up that occurred in wake of the phone call between Tsai Ing-Wen and Donald Trump which occurred in December.

Indeed, would Hung herself seek a meeting with Trump? If it probably would be too sensitive for Trump and Tsai to have a face-to-face meeting, never mind the unprecedented nature of the Tsai-Trump phone call, Trump would probably never meet with Hung. But Hung could still do much damage on her trip, such as taking advantage of her trip to paint a picture of Taiwan which suggests that Taiwanese are in fact, in favor of Chinese unification, with Tsai being an outlier, or more likely, attempting to create the perception that Taiwanese are more divided on unification/independence issues than they actually are.

Hung while stepping down as presidential candidate of the KMT in October 2015. Photo credit: Reuters

Obviously, the international media furor that followed Trump-Tsai phone call was the first time that many Americans had heard of Taiwan, and so Hung may enjoy American media attention during her trip that she otherwise would not have had. Likewise, if Trump was guided in his decision to have a phone call with Tsai Ing-Wen by the Republican hawks present in his administration, it is unknown what their views of the KMT are, and, either way, Trump could also override them if he sees fit. Unpredictability is the name of the game under a Trump administration, seeing as Trump may circumvent traditional foreign establishment institutions.

Another one of Hung’s aims may be to try to outflank Tsai. Tsai took a high-profile visit to the US during campaigning in 2016 presidential election in Taiwan, at a point in time in which Hung was the presidential candidate of the KMT and had not yet been replaced by Eric Chu. Hung herself refused to take a similar trip, seemingly in defiance of Tsai, although this was probably a miscalculation. For a country as hungry for international recognition as Taiwan, given its displacement from the international community, high-profile international trips are an easy means of building political capital for Taiwanese politicians. But Hung did not seem to grasp this at the time. As is true of the DPP and other pan-Green parties, overseas Taiwanese communities in America may also be a large source of political funding and support for the KMT, given the large size and affluent nature of the pan-Blue Taiwanese diaspora in America.

Nonetheless, after becoming chairperson of the KMT, Hung seems to have realized the importance of overseas trips. Hung’s trip with China and her meeting with Xi Jinping in their positions as chairs of the KMT and CCP respectively can be seen as an attempt to outflank Tsai, seeing as diplomatic relations between Taiwan and China have worsened under Tsai’s administration because Tsai has refused China’s demands to secure acknowledgment of the 1992 Consensus from her and the DPP. An alternative explanation is that Hung may need to pay a visit to wealthy backers of the KMT in America in order to secure their support, perhaps with the hopes that they may back her for party chair in her reelection, rather than rivals such as Wu Den-Yih or Hau Lung-Bin. Hung’s moves aimed at securing her position within the KMT have already been controversial and factional conflict within the KMT continues.

Hung meeting with Xi Jinping in China in November 2016. Photo credit: AP

But while anxiety from China over Taiwan electing a DPP president is to be expected, Tsai herself has, in fact, suggested that she would like to achieve the breakthrough of meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing as equals and Hung achieving such a meeting where Tsai has not been to may smart for Tsai. Hence in the wake of Hung’s visit to China, there were some attempts to accommodate China by Tsai or even to win over members of the pan-Blue camp and use them to conduct relations with China, such as naming pan-Blue politician James Soong as Taiwan’s representative to APEC, one of the few international bodies in which Taiwan is allowed to participate. Tsai may have believed that a pan-Blue politician would be able to maintain better relations with China in international bodies, it being a common political claim of the KMT that it is the only political party in Taiwan able to conduct relations with China. Immediately after Hung’s trip to China, Tsai also appointed a number of pan-Blue officials to high positions, such as appointing David Lee as head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the attempted nomination of Hsieh Wen-ting as president of the Judicial Yuan, never mind the checkered record of both politicians during the authoritarian period, and consideration of Wang Jinpyng of the KMT for chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation, though in the end Wang did not take the position.

Yet with Tsai’s breakthrough in achieving a telephone call with an American president (and several Tweets in which Trump referred directly to “Taiwan” when previous American presidents were not allowed to refer to Taiwan by name), where no Taiwanese president had previously been able to accomplish such a feat, this seems the superior accomplishment to Hung’s. As such, if Hung is resolutely pro-China and the KMT has latched onto issues such as allowing American pork into Taiwan as a precondition to the TPP to try and place barriers between stronger ties between America and China, Hung also feels the compensatory need to boost her American credentials now. Hence the US trip.

But more details remain to be clarified about Hung’s US trip and its true aims are still unclear. We will see in the coming days and weeks.