by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Lai Ching-te/Facebook

AHEAD OF LAI CHING-TE’S presidential inauguration later this month, there have been some calls in DC for the DPP to remove its independence clause in the party charter. While the DPP already de facto froze the charter in 1999, ahead of Chen Shui-bian becoming president as the first non-KMT president in Taiwanese history through the adoption of the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, for some this is not enough and the DPP should more firmly commit to a non-independence stance by removing the independence clause in the charter.

Yet removing the independence clause is unlikely to change much. For one, critics of Taiwan such as, say, Elbridge Colby and others of his ilk are unlikely to be satisfied.

One notes that the White House feared Tsai Ing-wen, who is now known as a moderate on cross-strait issues, as dangerously pro-independence in her 2012 run for president. As such, the White House undercut her campaign with a phone call to the Financial Times expressing lack of faith in her to stand up to China.

Lai, who has sought to emphasize that he will maintain Tsai’s foreign policy, on the other hand, has a genuine history of pro-independence statements which since then he has sought to moderate. It is easy enough for Taiwan-skeptics to find past statements or actions by Lai to insist that in his heart of hearts, Lai yearns for Taiwanese independence, and to amplify this to sow doubt about whether he will indeed maintain Tsai’s foreign policy and to insist that he will push for independence as president. Indeed, such individuals were never fans of Taiwan to begin with, and sometimes sought to frame Tsai herself’s actions as dangerously pro-independence. It is unlikely such individuals could ever have been persuaded to support Taiwan.

President-elect Lai Ching-te. Photo credit: Lai Ching-te/Facebook

On the other hand, Lai would get little in return from the US if he were to remove the DPP’s pro-independence clause. The Biden administration could give Lai little in return for such a political risk, which would alienate a portion of Lai’s base–those in the pan-Green camp who would see the DPP removing its pro-independence clause as a betrayal of its fundamental values. That is, at a time when the KMT holds a slim majority in the legislature, Lai is likely to need all the support he can get. And anything the Biden administration does could potentially be undone by a subsequent Trump administration.

Indeed, Taiwan seeks to expand its international space. Starting off a Lai presidency by immediately taking a step back through compromising on the DPP charter sends the wrong message domestically. To this extent, as China is likely to leverage on any point of weakness, China would take advantage of a weak initial move by Lai in order to further constrain and minimize Taiwan’s international diplomatic space, to sow doubt about Lai among his own supporters, and further political splits in Taiwan.

It is also to be questioned whether Taiwan potentially removes a potential point of leverage if it removes the independence clause, in that Lai immediately signals submission to the US’ desires off the bat, and removes any wiggle room Taiwan has to inveigh against the US. This proves dangerous, especially considering that a Trump presidency could prove dangerously unpredictable, and Taiwan may want to keep potential bargaining chips close.

The KMT is likely to try and take advantage of any contention regarding the DPP’s independence clause, however. In particular, the KMT has continued its political strategy of framing the DPP as a dangerously pro-independence political party, which is not to be trusted with political rule because of its ideological commitment to independence. Although the DPP has backed away from such stances in past years, the KMT is still able to persuade some in Washington otherwise.

Indeed, there are those who are, in fact, taken in by the KMT’s claims to be pro-US and not pro-China as depicted by the DPP. This has been the case under current party chair Eric Chu, who has sought to rebrand the party to change its pro-China image. Yet the KMT’s actions do not belie its rhetoric, with close to 1/3rd of the party’s legislative caucus traveling to China in mid-April. But the view of the DPP as needing to remove its independence clause reflects a view rather distant from Taiwan, one which cedes too much credence to how the KMT and disingenuous Taiwan-skeptics whose ultimate motivation is simply to sow doubt about it and who would seek to reframe present political dynamics in the incoming Lai administration.

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