Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Taiwan’s 2016 Elections and Cross-Strait Relations

Taiwan’s 2016 Elections and Cross-Strait Relations

Tsai Ing-wen's Campaign Headquarters in Taipei (Source: Flickr - MiNe)

When Taiwanese voters went to the polls on January 16, 2016, they did something that has become admirably routine in Taiwan’s robust democracy: mandating a change of the party in power and setting the stage for another peaceful transition of power between opposing political parties—the third since Taiwan began holding fully democratic presidential elections in 1996. This election was, however, different in some key respects: voters chose the first woman president of the ROC or any government in the Chinese-speaking world; cross-Strait relations were not a defining or central issue in the campaign or, apparently, for the electorate; and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won both the presidency and a solid majority in the Legislative Yuan—something that the Kuomintang (KMT) had enjoyed for the preceding eight years. The significance of the second of these novel features should not be overstated. Relations with the Mainland were more salient than the surface focus on issues of economic performance, inequality, pensions, housing affordability, and public health and safety may suggest. And cross-Strait questions will loom very large for President Tsai Ing-wen and a DPP-majority government’s prospects for success.

Cross-Strait Issues and the Elections: Still Salient After All These Years

The lack of emphasis on relations with Beijing was, in part, a consequence of the public’s heightened concern with domestic economic and social issues. But it also reflected other changes. Under party chair and presidential candidate Tsai, the DPP had positioned itself effectively nearer the political center on cross-Strait policy, thereby neutralizing an issue on which the KMT had long enjoyed an advantage with voters. Compared to prior DPP stances (including, especially, those adopted by the only previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian), Tsai’s positions were much more solidly in the mainstream of public opinion and likely to appeal to the median voter: she would maintain the status quo in cross-Strait relations, pursue peaceful and stable development of cross-Strait relations, not openly reject the 1992 Consensus (characterized by the Ma Ying-jeou administration as “one China, respective / differing interpretations”), insist that developments in cross-Strait relations be in accordance with the will of the people of Taiwan and the constitution of the Republic of China, and so on. The KMT’s later-replaced presidential candidate Hong Hsiu-chu helped the DPP (and helped to scuttle her own candidacy) with statements that were seen as significantly more “pro-unification” or “pro-China” than the positions of the incumbent KMT government under President Ma. The most controversial example was her proffering a formula of “one China, same interpretation,” which stood in seemingly obvious—if subsequently denied—contrast to Ma’s “one China, respective / differing interpretations.”

Moreover, concerns in Taiwan about the closer ties with China forged during the preceding eight years by the Ma government had shifted in ways that favored the DPP’s traditionally more skeptical stance. For many years, debates about Taiwan’s Mainland policies had been framed largely in terms of how far and how fast rapprochement should proceed, and whether the economic gains to Taiwan were worth the political risk that Beijing would use its increased leverage to undermine Taiwan’s de facto independence and to press for accommodation on issues of sovereignty under terms acceptable to the PRC. In the run-up to the 2016 electoral cycle, however, the critique had shifted to focus on engagement’s failure to deliver the gains its proponents had promised. Although performing well by dismal contemporary global standards, Taiwan’s economic growth remained anemic when measured against expectations rooted in Taiwan’s past experience and reinforced by the Ma government’s pledges.

More significant politically, many Taiwanese saw the benefits from cross-Strait economic integration as going overwhelmingly to a small elite. Ma-era policies toward the Mainland became entwined with public perceptions of unacceptably high levels of inequality. Especially for younger Taiwanese with little sense of connection to China and much anxiety about their own economic futures, the Ma government’s steps toward further opening to the Mainland were not just inadequate as solutions; they were part of the problem. The most striking example was the reaction to the proposed cross-Strait agreement on trade in services—one of nearly two dozen follow-on agreements to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement reached in the early days of the Ma administration. Concerns about the agreement and the Ma administration’s push for it spurred the Sunflower Movement and the student-led occupation of the legislature in the spring of 2014, contributed to stunning KMT defeats in local elections in November 2014, and led to the formation of the New Power Party which became (albeit with a mere five of 113 seats) the third largest party in the legislature elected in 2016.

The controversy over the cross-Strait agreement on trade in services also indicated connections between cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s 2016 electoral politics that extended beyond economic issues. Much of what drove the Sunflower Movement and the 2014 election losses that presaged the KMT’s defeat in 2016 was the way the trade agreement had proceeded through the KMT-controlled legislature. The severely truncated debate and lack of substantive deliberation prompted sharp denunciations of a lack of transparency and democracy, and successful calls for the introduction of new legislation to provide for more detailed and substantive legislative scrutiny of cross-Strait agreements. (The legislation, although still unenacted, is a top DPP priority for 2016.)  At the same time, the Ma administration’s ultimate failure to secure legislative approval despite the KMT’s large parliamentary majority became part of a broader narrative of the ineffectiveness and dysfunction of the Ma administration and KMT-controlled government.

While cross-Strait issues thus played a large (if sometimes underappreciated and somewhat indirect role) in the 2016 elections, they also will remain a crucial concern for the DPP-led government. As Tsai’s and other DPP leaders’ statements during the campaign and in the wake of victory have acknowledged, they face daunting problems, not least in economic policy. And success will be more achievable—or possible at all—if cross-Strait relations go reasonably well. As disappointing as the economic fruits of Ma-era cross-Strait policies have been (especially in the eyes of DPP supporters), Taiwan’s economic fortunes depend a great deal on ties to the Mainland (and, in turn, the increasingly questionable health of the Chinese economy).

More indirectly but no less significantly, stable cross-Strait relations are preconditions to Beijing’s acquiescence in—and, in turn, the overall prospects for—Taiwan’s pursuit of other international economic opportunities that figure prominently in Tsai’s policy agenda (and that were key goals for Ma as well), including free trade agreements with other partners in East and Southeast Asia and possible future membership in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (which includes many members susceptible to pressure from China) and the PRC-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. More broadly and most seriously, a new period of crisis or a deep and lasting chill in cross-Strait relations would create additional distractions undermining the ambitious agenda of domestic economic and social reform offered by Tsai and the DPP, could threaten Taiwan’s security, and might push a hard-pressed DPP government to adopt a political strategy that returns to traditional positions that Beijing and other critics would attack as “pro-independence.”

Domestic Politics, U.S. Relations, and Beijing (1): Tsai’s (Limited) Advantages

In navigating a difficult environment in external relations, President Tsai will enjoy, at least initially, some notable advantages. First, at home, the Tsai government should have some latitude to formulate and adjust cross-Strait policies. The likely correctly perceived link between Tsai’s embrace of a more moderate approach to Mainland policy and the DPP’s electoral success, and the substantial majority that Tsai’s DPP won in the legislature should mean that there will not be much effective pressure from the DPP’s “deep green” base (and the legislators most aligned with it) to move toward a “tougher” Mainland policy. This is all the more likely to be true if the DPP-led legislature adopts reforms to the legislature’s internal procedural rules—which under the KMT’s parliamentary head and Ma Ying-jeou’s bitter intra-party rival Wang Jin-pyng allowed a handful of members to block legislative action.

From the other side of Taiwan’s political spectrum, there seems likely to be little near-term pressure on Tsai to move farther toward more accommodating positions. By accepting much of what was undertaken under Ma, Tsai and the DPP have preempted—even coopted—some traditional “blue” criticisms. And the opposition KMT is, for now, too much in disarray to frame a clear and politically effective alternative position on cross-Strait policy (or other issues). With its once-rising star Eric Chu (Chu Li-luan) having been dragged reluctantly into the presidential race and having led his party to a stunning defeat, the KMT faces internal struggles and, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 elections, seemed to have little political strategy beyond waiting for Tsai and the DPP to make mistakes or to fail to solve the problems that had made voters so dissatisfied with Ma and the KMT that they turned the incumbent party out of power.

Second, in relations with Taiwan’s indispensable supporter, Tsai starts from a relatively strong position as well. Her 2015 visit to Washington contrasted sharply with her visit four years earlier during her first, unsuccessful run for Taiwan’s presidency. In 2011, the U.S. reception was chilly at best, replete with complaints that she was evasive on questions of policy toward the Mainland, concerns that she could not or would not handle cross-Strait relations well, and clear signals that the U.S. favored Ma’s reelection. Her pre-2016 election trip went far better, with her more clearly articulated and more centrist positions on cross-Strait relations winning much greater acceptance, her quiet meetings with higher-ranking U.S. officials reflecting this more positive reception, and her U.S. audiences drawing additional comfort from the prominent role accorded to Joseph Wu (Wu Jaushieh), who was known and respected in Washington for his handling of the difficult task of serving as Taiwan’s ambassador-equivalent during Chen Shui-bian’s friction-producing presidency, and who had become the DPP’s General Secretary under Tsai and likely appointee to a key national security or foreign policy post in a Tsai government.

Third, Taiwan’s counterparty in cross-Strait relations adopted positions of relative restraint and moderation toward presidential candidate and President-elect Tsai’s approach to cross-Strait issues (something Tsai herself noted publicly). Despite some long-running grumblings that Tsai was a true-believer in Taiwan independence who would be worse than the merely opportunistic former President Chen (whose “pro-independence” moves had drawn Beijing’s ire and triggered recurring crises in Taiwan-Mainland relations), or that Tsai was irredeemably tainted by her role in former President Lee Teng-hui’s “splittist” “two-states thesis” (as Beijing called Lee’s famous July 1999 characterization of the nature of cross-Strait relations), Beijing’s official stance toward the 2016 Taiwan election—and its outcome—generally followed the pattern of 2008 and 2012. That is, China left no doubt that it favored the KMT, but it did not rule out dealing with a DPP-led government that was willing to eschew positions on cross-Strait issues that Beijing deemed unacceptable. Beijing’s post-election view, as expressed in commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency, expressed hope and expectation that cross-Strait relations could and would proceed on their prior course and eschewed alarm over the DPP’s victory.

Domestic Politics, U.S. Relations and Beijing (2): Underlying Weaknesses and Challenges

Yet, on each of these fronts, Tsai and her government may be in a weaker position than these evident strengths suggest. First, insulation from political pressure at home may prove fragile. Although the incoming DPP government has tried hard to manage expectations, slow progress on economic issues could quickly become a problem. If Beijing is dissatisfied with what Tsai appears ready to offer on the terms of cross-Strait engagement, it may choose to turn up the pressure in the relatively near term, perhaps through relatively small but symbolically weighty blows to Taiwan’s international space. For example, China might allow one of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners to switch recognition and formal relations to the PRC. Or Beijing might block Taiwan’s invitation to participate at the World Health Assembly annual meeting in May 2016 (breaking a pattern that has been in place since 2008). Or the PRC might suspend the meetings between the quasi-official bodies—Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and the Mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait—that were recommenced in 2008 and that have been instrumental to rapprochement during the Ma years, and stall progress toward deeper government-to-government engagement or the establishment of quasi-consular offices on both sides of the Strait.

In these circumstances, Tsai would face pressure to respond. Critical voices would likely grow loud, charging that her approach to cross-Strait relations was not working. The perseverance to endure an early chill from Beijing—which might portend little about the Chinese regime’s longer term strategy—would not come easily. Small but significant U.S. countermeasures to Beijing’s gambits—for example, sending a higher-than-usual-level American official to Taipei—could help to prevent an unnecessary downward spiral, but it would be unlikely to eliminate the risk.

The generally positive reception for Tsai in Washington in mid-2015 should not be over-read. Although more subdued, complaints persisted in some quarters that Tsai had not yet made her cross-Strait policies clear. And there were more widespread—and harder to dismiss—concerns about the uncertainty of what Tsai would do if, or when, Beijing found her non-acceptance of the 1992 Consensus (or other of Tsai’s positions) unacceptable. To a significant extent, the contrast between Tsai’s 2011 and 2015 visits reflected Washington’s recognition of the obvious difference in her electoral prospects. In 2011, the U.S., which was generally happy with President Ma’s handling of cross-Strait relations (and very pleased by the changes from the Chen era), was confident that Ma would prevail over Tsai and maintain policies that were, for Washington, preferable to what Tsai would do in the unlikely event that she were to win. In 2015, however, Washington had to engage Tsai as a presumptive victor in the then-upcoming election. In such circumstances, U.S. officials and others in relevant policy circles had to be concerned about how they might best cultivate means to persuade or influence the policies of a future President Tsai. Simply, Washington has reason to—and does—treat presumptive winners differently from likely losers.

Candidate Tsai’s two visits to Washington occurred in two significantly different contexts of U.S.-China relations. Although tensions in the world’s most important bilateral relationship were evident in 2011, by 2015 the view was more widespread and more emphatic in U.S. China-watching circles that a largely cooperative relationship between Beijing and Washington could not be counted upon. In this context (and with other things—including Taiwan’s Mainland policy—held constant), Taiwan appeared less likely to be a cause of unnecessary friction in U.S.-PRC relations and more likely to be an asset—one of the friends and allies upon which the U.S. relied in its “rebalancing” to Asia (and in response to China).

To be sure, these circumstances offered valuable security benefits to Taiwan that would persist into Tsai’s presidency—and that seemed to be confirmed on the eve of Taiwan’s elections by the first (albeit modest-sized) U.S. offer of arms sales to Taiwan in four years. But, here too, the apparent good news for Tsai and Taiwan should not be exaggerated. If U.S.-China relations remain tension-filled or become more fraught (whether over the South China Sea, cyberespionage, rivalrous international economic agendas, or many other possible issues) or if the U.S. seeks cooperation from what it sees as a generally recalcitrant (and, indeed, increasingly uncooperative) China (on security issues involving North Korea, conflict in West Asia, or other matters), serious questions of U.S. national interests will be more directly and deeply implicated. If that happens, the U.S.’s commitments to supporting Taiwan cannot be expected to trump the other interests the U.S. will have at stake. This is a risk for Taiwan even if Washington does not see Taipei as having caused deterioration in cross-Strait and, in turn, U.S.-China relations. The problem for Taiwan is greater still if influential opinion in the U.S. sees Taiwan as being at fault. Prospects for Taiwan are all the more uncertain because a still-unknown new U.S. president will take office eight months after Tsai does.

Beijing’s apparent forbearance toward the prospect of a DPP win and a Tsai presidency has been ambiguous and seems ambivalent. The hardline view that Tsai is merely tactically hiding a radically pro-independence agenda has not defined Beijing’s approach, but voices expressing that view have not been silenced either. China’s relatively hands-off approach to the last three presidential election cycles in Taiwan does not definitively show Beijing’s progress along a learning curve that the contrast with three preceding rounds might seem to suggest. It is true that China’s approach has evolved: the cross-Strait missile crisis in 1995-96, which helped hand Beijing’s bête noire Lee Teng-hui a victory in 1996 (and stiffened American support for Taiwan); the second Taiwan White Paper that threatened the use of force if Taiwan pursued independence or even delayed indefinitely negotiations over reunification and the finger-wagging warning by Premier Zhu Rongji not to vote for the DPP, which likely helped the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian win in 2000; the strong indications of support for, and high-profile ties to, a reunited pan-Blue ticket in 2004, which gave Chen ammunition in his close-fought and successful reelection battle to argue that electing a KMT government risked undermining Taiwan’s autonomy and de facto independence; and the more temperate signals of support for the KMT coupled with a willingness to engage with any regime (including a DPP one) under certain conditions in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 cycles.

To the extent that this pattern reflects a growing appreciation in Beijing that ham-fisted intervention in Taiwan’s elections tends to backfire, that is still only moderately good news for Taiwan. Such learning does not neatly translate simply into an accommodating approach to post-election cross-Strait relations in 2016. More fundamentally, Beijing’s approach to the last three contests may not tell us very much because China’s Taiwan policymakers—in part benefitting from a much-improved understanding of Taiwan’s domestic politics—saw those elections as ones that Beijing could not hope to influence, with the first two predictably going to its favored candidate and the third going to its less palatable alternative.

In the run-up to the election (including at the November 2015 meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou) and in the aftermath of the DPP’s impressive win at the polls in January 2016, Beijing has continued to insist that Taiwan’s leader must adhere to the 1992 Consensus and some form of a one-China principle (presumptively in the form of both Taiwan and the Mainland belonging to one China), and must forego Taiwan independence, “splittist” activities, and claims that Taiwan and the Mainland are in any sense two countries. Tsai’s evolving positions go some distance toward what Beijing wants: not specifically rejecting the 1992 Consensus, promising to address cross-Strait relations within the framework of the ROC Constitution (which is, in some sense, a “one China” charter), approaching cross-Strait relations on the basis of a status quo that includes twenty-plus years of cross-Strait negotiations and exchanges (a timeframe that, at least arguably, includes the 1992 Singapore meeting that is the ostensible real-world basis for the “1992 Consensus” terminology coined by Su Chi eight years later), accepting the historical fact of the 1992 meeting and (in a point emphasized in Joseph Wu’s post-election visit to Washington) its spirit of dialogue and setting aside (but reserving) differences while pursuing common ground, and being interested in top-level cross-Strait meetings under appropriate conditions. But there is still a gap, and Tsai appears unlikely to be willing, or able politically, to accept the terms Beijing has, so far, insisted upon as the political basis for stability—or perhaps the avoidance of retrogression—in cross-Strait relations.

The Road Ahead for Cross-Strait Relations: Words and Deeds

The question looms of whether some new or revised formulation can be found in the arcane politics of creating language to handle cross-Strait relations. Will it be possible to craft a terminology that, on the one hand, Beijing can accept as adequate to provide the requisite framework and to preserve the political basis or foundation that Beijing characterizes as indispensable to the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations during the last eight years and that, on the other hand, Tsai and her DPP supporters can tolerate.

Beijing’s approach must take account of some major developments in Taiwan’s politics. Long-term trends—up notably during the Ma years and underpinned by generational turnover—have produced very high levels of “Taiwanese” identity in Taiwan (and correspondingly low identification with Mainland China). At the same time, support for independence (at least under current or reasonably imaginable conditions) is strikingly low, and—as Tsai’s positions underscore—the prospect of pursuing independence has ebbed considerably from the high watermark of the Chen administration’s more assertive moments. This striking and sharpened juxtaposition means that Beijing has very good reason to be confident that its “anti-secession” agenda is in good shape. But it also has very strong reason to fear that its “reunification” agenda faces extremely bleak prospects (at least if the means remain those of “winning hearts and minds” rather than resorting to coercion or force).

A peculiarity of Taiwan’s constitutional and electoral system will give both sides some time to work out what language to offer (in Taiwan’s case) or accept (in Beijing’s). Tsai will not take office until May 20, and her inaugural address likely will be a key occasion (as it certainly was for Chen in 2000 and 2004 and for Ma in 2008) to offer a definitive statement of her formula for engaging the Mainland. The four months between election and taking office surely will be marked by intense efforts and discussions among all three sides of the cross-Strait relationship—Taiwan, the Mainland and the United States—to shape an effective and acceptable locution.

When Tsai takes office, perhaps before then, and well into her term as well, there will be many decision points that may reveal much about the likely trajectory of cross-Strait relations. Early shots across the bow from Beijing—such as poaching one of Taiwan’s few diplomatic partners or quashing Taiwan’s 2016 WHA invitation—are a potential avoidable, and regrettable, example. Another test will come as the Tsai government pursues closer ties with Tokyo—something foreshadowed by Tsai’s October 2015 visit to Japan, former president and later DPP-supporter Lee Teng-hui’s support for closer ties with Japan, and the impending departure of President Ma (who is widely perceived as being relatively “anti-Japanese,” not least because of his long-standing focus on claims of ROC sovereignty in the Senkaku / Diaoyutai islands dispute).

Other salient moments may include any significant policy statements from Tsai and her government concerning the maritime and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Alarmist critics on both sides of the Strait have raised the remote possibility that Tsai might abandon or radically alter the ROC’s long-standing claims—which are the progenitors of the PRC’s claims—in the two contested areas. More plausibly and in a move that the U.S. has favored, Tsai might “clarify” the nature of the ROC’s claims under the 11-dash line (which forms the basis of the PRC’s 9-dash line) in the South China Sea, limiting it to claims based on territorial sovereignty over the landforms inside the line rather than a more capacious and assertive claim of rights based on sovereignty over the waters themselves or other historic rights. Or, in a move that Washington would be less likely to welcome, Tsai might take steps to affirm Ma’s pointed confirmation (through a pre-Chinese New Year’s visit that drew a rebuke from U.S. officials) of the ROC’s claims to Itu Aba / Taiping Island—the largest landform and strongest candidate for full island status in the South China Sea.

Under Tsai, Taiwan will also continue its long-running quest for international space and international economic engagement. Pursuit of opportunities to participate in the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization, INTERPOL, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be on the new regime’s agenda. So too will be the RCEP, TPP (whenever the second round begins), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and bilateral free trade agreements. Each of these will provide an occasion for a more or less accommodating or obstructing response from Beijing.

Prospects for cross-Strait relations, and the new DPP-led government, will depend on how the Mainland and the United States respond to Taiwan’s statements and actions on these and other concrete issues, as well as on the more dramatic focal point of what formula Tsai will present for relations with Beijing, presumably at her historic and closely watched inaugural address. And it is important to recognize that much will also likely turn on still-unforeseen events. This last feature of cross-Strait relations was vividly illustrated on the eve of the 2016 election when a teenage Taiwanese K-pop singer’s waving of the ROC national flag drew (with prompting from a Mainland-resident Taiwanese entertainer) virulent condemnation from Mainland netizens for displaying ostensibly “pro-independence” sentiments, and led, in turn, a hostage video-like self-criticism from the young singer, a flat-footed response from Chinese officials, and much anger and concern in Taiwan about what the incident seemed to reveal about the Mainland’s approach to, and understanding of, its neighbor across the Strait.