Unlike the embattled Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang – KMT), the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has not had a hard time trying to find a suitable candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in Taiwan. The DPP’s chairperson Tsai Ing-wen （蔡英文）was an obvious choice from the very start. On one hand, the party nominated its popular leader, a move that seems only natural. On the other, Tsai has been leading in polls (most of them anyway, but we’ll get to that later) and the DPP has been in a triumphant mood after it scored an unprecedented win in the 2014 regional elections.
It is no surprise then that the KMT has been in panic mode ever since, which is demonstrated by its difficulties in finding a proper candidate. Just to make one thing clear, the Kuomintang fully expected a defeat and illustrated this by making an amendment to its charter. The charter had originally required the President to double as the party chairman. However, the extent of the electoral failure was a shock to everyone, including President Ma Ying-jeou, who had no other choice but to step down as the party leader. It was only made procedurally possible by the aforementioned modification of the KMT charter, and the party’s helm was assumed by one of the very few victors of the 2014 electoral bloodbath. The current mayor of the New Taipei City Eric Chu (朱立倫) hardly managed to come out on top, as only a total of 25 thousand votes (out of 2 million ballots cast) secured his narrow win. No wonder that all the calls on Chu to step into the race have – so far – fallen on deaf ears.
Apart from the New Taipei City Mayor, the Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-ping (王金平) is considered to be the only candidate, who stands a slim chance against Tsai, although the latest polls are in the DPP’s candidate’s favor. Unfortunately for the KMT, he has also been reluctant, to say the least, about the prospect of toping his political career with a prestigious electoral defeat.
For the moment, the Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) remains the only potential KMT contender. Interestingly enough, Ms. Hung beat Tsai in a recent poll, but the confidence in the former actually standing a chance against the DPP chairperson is best illustrated by the Kuomintang’s reaction. The ruling party’s legislators accused the opposition of rigging the poll in order assure an easy win in January 2016. Even though the “evidence” is – at best – circumstantial, let’s assume for the sake of argument, the poll was a dirty trick. The question remains: What is going to change in Taiwan’s foreign and cross-strait policy under President Tsai, as even the KMT’s behaviour clearly indicate she is the frontrunner in the race?
Tsai has been trying to be as vague as possible when it comes to her vision of the future of cross-strait relations, the so-called “1992 consensus” and Taiwan’s international status. She is well aware that opting to definite a position one way or the other may cost her dearly. Accepting the “1992 consensus” or the “one-China policy” could be seen as betrayal among the deeply green voters. One the other hand, supporting Taiwan’s independence or even a referendum on the subject could lead to catastrophe. That is why Tsai has adhered to her mantra of “maintaining the status quo,” without being too specific about what she actually means by that. She did shed some light onto her foreign policy priorities as soon as she left Taiwan for a US pre-electoral tour. Should we expect a dramatic policy shift after Ma Ying-jeou’s two terms of cross-strait rapprochement?
An initial impression left by Tsai’s editorial for the Wall Street Journal, which took the form of a foreign policy creed, reflects the unofficial goal of the DPP’s chairperson’s trip to the US, where she has attempted to convince Washington that her party is a responsible international stakeholder and will not resort to any sort of provocative behavior that might enrage China and lead to conflict. Tsai presented her vision based on four pillars, or a four-pronged approach, as she called it: 1) broadening cooperation with the U.S. 2) identifying and participating in international projects that Taiwan can support 3) protecting Taiwan’s economic autonomy through trade diversification 4) enhancing principled cooperation with China. What could this mean in practice?
1) For the most part, her statements suggest continuity of President Ma’s policy, with a few tweaks here and there, served in a green (DPP’s colors) package. The first pillar, cooperation with the U.S., sounds like a broken KMT record. The idea of enhancing cooperation on joint training, exercises and defense-industrial cooperation indicates continuity of the current approach, in the spirit of “I will do the same, but I will get it done better.” It could mean more U.S. arms sales, especially that the KMT has not been able to secure a major deal since 2011. But time will tell if Washington be willing to provoke Beijing with a less China-friendly president in office.
2) In regard to “participating in international projects that Taiwan can support,” Tsai emphasized nontraditional security threats (NTS), related to climate change and natural disasters. Again, no surprise here, as Taiwan has been actively lobbying for the island’s meaningful participation in international organizations, dealing with NTS, and it did score some success under the current administration. Since 2009, it participates in the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei.” In September 2013, Taiwan’s delegation was also invited to take part as special guests of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for the first time in history. Taipei has also been trying to get access to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); “these wishes, however, have yet to be fulfilled because of our unique political circumstances,” as the current administrations puts it. Despite the limited success mentioned above, there is still room for improvement, but again, it means continuity not a revision of KMT’s policy. What is important here is that Tsai addressed China, along with the U.S., Japan and South Korea, as a like-minded nation. This was a clear tip of the hat to Beijing, whose green light is necessary if Taiwan desires some more international space.
3) The notion of “protecting Taiwan’s economic autonomy through trade diversification” has also been on the KMT’s priorities short list. Taiwan has signed two bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) – with Singapore and New Zealand in 2013, a similar deal with the EU is Taiwan’s long term objective, as indicated by MOFA officials this author has interviewed. Taipei has also voiced its willingness to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, a goal highlighted by Tsai. The substance again constitutes continuity, rather than a revision of the Kuomintang’s policy. What may differ is the packaging that the DPP President decides to deliver. Both of the FTA’s signed by Taiwan in 2013 were preceded by similar agreements between the respective countries and China. The EU is currently negotiating a Bilateral Investment Agreement with Beijing, and it has indicated on many occasions that it will not be ready to conclude a free trade deal with Taipei without a prior conclusion of negotiations with the mainland. KMT’s Taiwan has been attempting to assume the pole position here, but it never confronted China directly, despite evident obstructions on its part. What remains unclear is whether Tsai would be ready for a diplomatic faceoff with Beijing. This brings us to the final pillar of the “four pronged approach.”
4) Despite “enhancing principled cooperation with China” is referred to as “the core goal of Tsai’s administration,” not many details were revealed in the article. The passage about “open channels of communication” may indicate that the DPP is ready to engage in dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party leadership, as it has accused the KMT of monopolizing cross-strait relations. Tsai did not reject the controversial Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, but pledged transparency so that the Taiwanese people would not feel left out. This sounds like an echo of the KMT’s Charles Chen’s interview for the Foreign Policy magazine. Tsai concludes by stating that she “will ensure that the spirit of cooperation that has guided the betterment of China-Taiwan relations continues.” The massage that was clearly intended for Washington, but it also indicates that close to 8 years of cross-strait rapprochement and political realism have brought the DPP closer to the KMT’s position on Taiwan’s relations with China, even if Tsai does not admit it for electoral reasons.
In a nutshell, Tsai’s policy statement harbingers her willingness to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, but it’s the dynamics of the upcoming campaign that may unravel any potential revisions. Additionally, the DPP’s presidential candidate’s gestures of good will were not reciprocated by Beijing. On the contrary, China’s top diplomat in Washington, Ambassador Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) responded in a rather undiplomatic manner by calling Tsai’s U.S.-tour a “job interview ” and stating ”she first has to pass the test of the 1.3 billion Chinese.” He made it clear that Beijing would prefer to keep dealing with the more predictable and traditionally more China-friendly KMT, but it may have to get used to a different prospect in terms of cross-strait dialogue.
Tsai’s visit to the United States was quite successful in terms of presenting the DPP as a responsible stakeholder and reassuring Taiwan’s most important (though unofficial) ally that a DPP administration can handle cross-strait relations in a satisfactory manner. Convincing the mainland will take much more that a 12-day visit.
Jakub Piasecki (謝佳倫 – Xie Jia-lun) – Graduate of the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. From 2009 to 2012, he worked for the European Parliament as a Press Officer and Policy Advisor on China. Following close to four years of service at the EP, he moved to Taipei, where he completed a Visiting Fellowship at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he conducts research on Taiwan’s relations with the European Union. His areas of expertise cover Taiwan and cross-strait relations. Fluent in English and Chinese