A proposal for the consideration of Taiwan’s president-elect

February 06, 2024 22:56

When Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party won Taiwan’s presidential election on Jan. 13, ensuring his party’s continued rule for an unprecedented third term, Beijing issued a statement asserting that the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion on the island.”

Lai won 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race. This means that a majority, 60 percent, did not vote for the DPP candidate. Moreover, in parliamentary elections held the same day, the DPP lost its majority.

On Feb. 1, the DPP’s Speaker and Deputy Speaker were replaced by KMT legislators, Han Kuo-yu, who ran for president in 2020, and Johnny Chiang, former KMT chairman.

For the first time in 16 years, Taiwan will have a minority government when Lai is sworn in May 20.

China was apprehensive of a Lai victory. Two days before the election, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned that Lai would push for “separatist activist” and create a “dangerous situation” in the Taiwan Strait.

Clearly, China was highly skeptical of Lai’s campaign promise to continue his predecessor Tsai Ying-wen’s cross-straits policy and not change the status quo.

Both Beijing and Taipei claim international support.

Mao Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, said Jan. 19: “So far, over 100 countries and international organizations have openly reiterated their commitment to the one-China principle.”

Nine days later, Taiwan’s foreign ministry issued a statement rejecting the notion that the Taiwan issue is a matter of China’s internal affairs. “The Republic of China (Taiwan) is an independent and sovereign nation,” it said. “The presidential elections on January 13 demonstrated Taiwan’s maturity and stability as a democracy, earning praise from more than 100 countries worldwide.”

Beijing distrusts Lai and the DPP, which in 1991 endorsed a party platform calling for the establishment of “the Republic of Taiwan as a sovereign, independent and autonomous nation.”
Oddly, perhaps, Lai is also distrusted by the United States. In July, during the campaign, Lai said “when Taiwan’s president can enter the White House, the political goal that we’re pursuing will have been achieved.”

According to the Financial Times, U.S. officials asked Taiwan to clarify Lai’s remarks. Taken literally, they seemed to suggest that Lai wanted the U.S. to establish relations with Taiwan, severed in 1979 when Washington established ties with Beijing. That goal certainly is not consistent with maintaining the status quo.

So there are doubts in both Beijing and Washington about Lai and where he really stands on independence.

To ease those doubts, there is something dramatic that Lai, president of the DPP, can do: remove the Taiwan independence clause from the party platform. After all, the DPP in power continues to call Taiwan the Republic of China.

That would set minds at ease around the world. It should also spur Beijing into reviving its dialogue with Taiwan.

China’s leader Xi Jinping should reiterate the mainland’s fundamental policy of striving for peaceful reunification and make it clear that as long as Taiwan makes no move to permanently separate from the mainland, that fundamental policy would not change. That is to say, Beijing will not use force as long as Taiwan does not take action to be a country separate from China.

The United States is the third party in this Beijing-Taiwan-Washington relationship.

In 1972, Washington took the position that differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should be resolved through peaceful means. In the Shanghai Communique – the first document signed by the two countries – the United States reaffirmed its interest in “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

It is time for the United States to make it clear that its position has not changed. Washington needs to insist that differences between the two sides of the strait must be resolved through peaceful means and that it would accept whatever decision is made by the people of Taiwan. It should not treat Taiwan as a chip in its dealings with China.

This is a good time for Lai to make his gesture. Abolishing the independence clause shows that he, and his party, no longer supports independence. If the mainland responds positively and the cross-straits dialogue resumes, Taiwan will no longer be seen as a source of global conflict. Moreover, the U.S.-China relationship will stabilize as both sides want. But Lai has to start the ball rolling first.

Of course, whatever resolution the two sides reach in their dialogue will have to be endorsed by the people of Taiwan. There will be no question whether the DPP or any other political party represents Taiwan’s mainstream public opinion.

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