17 October 2019
DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen is seen as a favorite to win Taiwan’s presidential election next year. Photo: Reuters
DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen is seen as a favorite to win Taiwan’s presidential election next year. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan’s DPP needs to clarify its cross-straits policy

With barely eight months to go before Taiwan holds its next general election, at which both a new president and the entire parliament will be chosen, there was a lot hanging in the balance as the new chairman of the ruling Kuomintang, Eric Chu, met in Beijing last week with his Communist Party counterpart, Xi Jinping, who is both party general secretary and state president.

The meeting in Beijing on May 4 was used by the KMT to bolster its status as a party that can deal with the mainland, while the opposition used the event to depict the KMT as a party that identifies with China rather than Taiwan and that it may sell out the island’s interests.

Taiwan’s ruling party suffered a major setback last November in local elections, in which Chu was one of a tiny handful of KMT candidates to emerge victorious, winning his campaign for another term as mayor of New Taipei City. In the aftermath of that disaster, President Ma Ying-jeou resigned as party chairman and was succeeded by Chu.

That defeat in elections across Taiwan gave tremendous momentum to the Democratic Progressive Party, whose leader, Tsai Ing-wen, is now running for president. The KMT has not yet nominated a candidate, and Chu has said that he promised his voters to serve out his mayoral term and so will not run for president.

Regardless of who the KMT eventually nominates, Tsai is widely seen as the heavy favorite to be the next president, and the Communist Party of China (CPC) is preparing itself for that eventuality.

The basis for the KMT-CPC cooperation since Ma’s inauguration in 2008 has been the so-called “1992 consensus,” under which both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree that there is one China but differ as to what that actually means.

While Tsai says that her cross-straits policy is to maintain the status quo, her party is opposed to the “One China” principle, including the vaguer variation known as the 1992 consensus. However, China has made it clear that cooperation with Taiwan can only take place if both sides accept “One China”.

Thus, when Chu indicated to Xi Taiwan’s interest in joining the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the mainland leader responded that “proper arrangements” could be made for that, but only if they are consistent with the one-China principle.

Moreover, Xi also said that it was “necessary for political parties and individuals from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to seriously think about” what the next level of cross-strait relations should be, making it clear that China was thinking not just of the KMT but also of the DPP as a party with which it was willing to deal under the proper conditions.

Tsai knows that in order to win the election and to govern Taiwan, she needs not only the support of the electorate but also of the United States, the guarantor of Taiwan’s security.

Four years ago, when she first ran for president, she met with American officials after which one senior official made it clear that Washington had doubts about whether she would be able to “continue the stability in cross-strait relations”.

It is not clear if such doubts remain. Tsai has insisted that her China policy is to maintain the status quo. However, “1992 consensus”, which she rejects, is an essential component of the status quo.

Evan Medeiros, senior director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council, was recently quoted as saying that comments by Tsai were “quite interesting and quite constructive”, and that the United States looks forward to hearing more from her. Perhaps Washington now finds her acceptable.

However, considering what Xi said at the Chu meeting, it seems unlikely that such a China policy, without further clarification, would be acceptable to Beijing.

The DPP, has wrestled with the issue and attempted to come up with a new formulation that may be acceptable to Beijing that does not stipulate “One China” or “1992 consensus”. So far, it has not come up with anything specific, but the party denies that there was ever a consensus in 1992.

Debate over whether there was a consensus or whether it was an agreement to disagree is not really relevant at this point. What is important is that China needs a basis for cooperation with Taiwan and, if the “1992 consensus” is removed, a substitute term or concept has to be created.

In the absence of a such a term, acceptable to both sides of the strait, it would be foolhardy to jettison the concept which, while vague, has resulted in seven years of peace and trade that amounted to almost US$200 billion in 2014.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.