20 April 2019
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen faces the tightening grip of China while finding the support of the US doubtful. Photo: Reuters
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen faces the tightening grip of China while finding the support of the US doubtful. Photo: Reuters

Tsai is having a hard time dealing with two super powers

In a few weeks, Tsai Ing-wen will mark her first anniversary as president of Taiwan. However, her celebration is likely to be subdued since she is facing intractable problems with the world’s two most important powers – China, which is an existential threat to her country, and the US, the guarantor of its security but whose reliability under Donald Trump is open to question.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants her to accept what is known as the 1992 Consensus, under which both Taipei and Beijing accept “one China,” with each free to interpret what that means. So Taiwan can say “China” means the Republic of China, which is Taiwan’s formal name, rather than the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Beijing has halted cross-strait institutional cooperation.

Trump, the American leader, has blown hot and cold, raising expectations by speaking to her on the telephone last December in an unprecedented call during which she congratulated him on winning the November election and he, in turn, congratulated her on her victory earlier in 2016.

But the jubilation in Taiwan was short-lived. On Dec. 11, nine days after that phone call, Trump said on Fox News, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

The implication was that all issues were connected, and Trump could make concessions to China on some areas, such as Taiwan, if China made concessions in other areas. Taiwan, it seemed, was little more than a bargaining chip for Trump, to be traded away for America’s benefit.

This Trump tendency to lump issues together was demonstrated again when Xi Jinping visited the US earlier this month. Subsequently, Trump said in an interview that he had told Xi that if China would deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, then the US would accept its trade deficit with China.

Since then, China and the US have been communicating frequently at high levels, from the president on down. Taiwan must be feeling distinctly uncomfortable, not knowing what the US is promising China in return for cooperation on North Korea, the South China Sea and other issues.

By contrast, Tsai knows where she stands with China. Because she has declined to endorse the 1992 Consensus, the cross-strait relationship has deteriorated to the point where it is described by Chinese officials as “extremely grim.” A big obstacle to endorsement is that her political party has in its charter a clause that says: “The Democratic Progressive Party calls for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Republic of Taiwan and the enactment of a new Constitution, to be decided by the people of Taiwan in a plebiscite.”

Over the years, attempts have been made to alter or delete this provision. In 1999, the DPP – on the eve of elections the following year that would see it win the presidency – issued a proclamation in which it reversed its position. Instead of calling for a plebiscite to bring about change, the DPP now defended the status quo.

And it defined the status quo this way: “Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country. Any change in the independent status quo must be decided by all the residents of Taiwan by means of plebiscite.” Since then, the DPP has taken the position that while Taiwan already is independent, its official name is the Republic of China. But the bothersome clause remained.

So if Taiwan is to end the deadlock with China, it looks like something will have to be done with the DPP constitution. This won’t be easy, but it should not be impossible.

Dealing with Trump, however, is a different story entirely. He doesn’t seem to understand – or care about – the impact of his words on other parties. He seems totally unembarrassed at being caught in a lie, or in reversing previous positions. Nailing him down is like nailing jello to the wall.

Tsai has an unenviable job. She will have to work with the people around Trump, many of them sympathetic to Taiwan, to make sure that he stays within bounds. Being low key is probably a good idea, so he doesn’t have a burning desire to tweet about Taiwan.

Work on changing the DPP platform is worthwhile. If Beijing sees that she is serious about this, relations with Taiwan should improve. China, less worried about Taiwan independence, should have less reason to exert pressure on the US. Taiwan’s value as a bargaining chip should diminish, which is surely something devoutly to be wished by Taiwan and its friends.

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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.

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