25 October 2016
Tsai Ing-wen never made clear her cross-strait polices. The ambiguity will continue during her administration. Photo: Reuters
Tsai Ing-wen never made clear her cross-strait polices. The ambiguity will continue during her administration. Photo: Reuters

Tsai’s ambiguity brings equilibrium in cross-strait relations

Strategic fuzziness can sometimes better serve a purpose. It means rather than showing your hand, you should not let the other party know your intent or next move.

Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) could not be more ambiguous about her cross-strait policies during her presidential campaign, choosing to ignore her rival’s repeated heckling that she must elucidate her position rather than beating around the bush.

Eric Chu Li-luan (朱立倫) challenged Tsai that she would not be able to maintain the peaceful status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

Tsai was not duped, as she knew only too well that Beijing would flex its muscles to scare off her supporters once she took a tough stance, and conversely, the pro-independence pan-green coalition may lose faith in her should she be perceived as kowtowing to the mainland.

Thus ambiguity turned out to be her best tactic.

The 1992 Consensus (“one China, two interpretations”) is the sum of all ambiguities itself and no one knows this better than Tsai, as she was a member of Li Teng-hui’s (李登輝) cabinet when the talks were held and she subsequently headed the Executive Yuan’s Mainland Affairs Council. In 1999 she drafted the “one country on each side” proclamation at Li’s behest.

The island and the mainland have yet to fully approve the 1992 Consensus, as exactly what negotiators have agreed on remains perplexing up to today: Beijing stresses that the consensus is “both sides belong to one China” while the KMT insists that there are two interpretations, including its own, which is that “one China” means the Republic of China that it represents.

The green camp has disavowed the common consent in toto, saying that the talks were futile. As Li puts it, the only consensus about the 1992 talks is that “there is no consensus”.

Quibbling and prevaricating, Tsai said the KMT’s view does not represent Taiwan and that “one China, two interpretations” is just one of the many options.

The ingenuity of Tsai’s “strategic fuzziness” is that while her stance is unclear to Beijing, her electorate is largely cognizant of how she thinks.

Is there anything that all Taiwan voters know about Tsai but Beijing doesn’t? No.

China, singlehandedly, enacted the Anti-Secession Law in 2005 and Article 8 stipulates that “in the event that the Taiwan independence secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“The State Council and the Central Military Commission shall decide on and execute the non-peaceful means and other necessary measures.”

Beijing needs to fathom Tsai’s official stand – in her capacity as the island’s top leader – not what she said in the past, in order to decide if it needs to get ready to undertake “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures”.

Should she negate the “one China” principle after taking office, then it’s a telling indication that she will seek the island’s independence.

The fact is that Beijing may hesitate to send the troops, fearing a war may trigger its own downfall given the whole lot of consequences it may eventually trigger.

Nor is Tsai going to provoke Beijing as staying equivocal is her safest bet. One way to do that is to equip herself with the same dominant public sentiment, and it’s a technical issue about how to design and manipulate polls.

We are going to see this kind of “strategically fuzzy equilibrium” in the Tsai era.

In such new equilibrium, cross-strait relations won’t be as sweet as during Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) presidency and Beijing may still harden its posture from time to time.

Nonetheless, all the exchange channels and soft propaganda will never be abolished, as Beijing is still bent on winning over people’s hearts.

Prepare for some tensions, but they will be storms in a teacup at the very end. To Beijing, things can change all over again in four or eight years and the KMT may mount a comeback.

So why bother to nitpick Tsai’s fuzziness?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 21.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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