Sep 06, 2011

Taiwan: Beijing Must Face Facts of Taiwanese Democracy

The island nation’s opposition leader, who advocates a more proactive response toward Chinese encroachment, pledged that if elected she would mobilize representatives from both of Taiwan’s political delegations to build a consensus regarding the nation’s embattled Straits Policy.

Below is an article published by Wall Street Journal:

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s a cliché that must be resonating right now for Democratic Progressive Party chairperson and Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who finds herself fighting an ideological battle with China not dissimilar to one she waged in 2000, weeks after she became the chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council under then president Chen Shui-bian.

The trouble is the “1992 Consensus.” The term, which was coined in 2000 by former Kuomintang national security head Su Chi, refers to the verbal agreement to disagree about each side’s definition of “one China” arrived at during a 1992 meeting in Hong Kong between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. Under the so-called consensus, the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and China’s government agreed that there was only “one China,” which included both the mainland and Taiwan, but left unclear exactly how that “one China” was defined, effectively allowing each side to continue to claim to be China’s rightful government.

Designed in 2000 as an ideological fig leaf to give Beijing enough cover on the all-important issue of independence to feel comfortable talking with Taiwan’s government, the term had little immediate effect as it was rejected by the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which was then in power. But since president Ma Ying-jeou’s election and the Kuomintang’s return to power, the consensus has been pulled off the shelf and used as the foundation for trade talks that have led to a number of historical steps including opening of direct flights between China and Taiwan, relaxation of tourism limitations, reductions in tariffs and investment liberalization.

Now Ms. Tsai has stirred up the old debate anew, advocating a flat-out rejection of the 1992 consensus in favor a new “Taiwan Consensus.”

Ms. Tsai said two weeks ago when she rolled out her policy guidelines that, if elected, she would consolidate the opinions of scholars and representatives from both of Taiwan’s political spectrums—what’s she’s dubbing a Taiwan Consensus–and use that position to negotiate with China. As she laughingly admitted in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, finding a consensus within Taiwan will be easier than making that consensus work with China. Not surprisingly, her stance has elicited harsh responses from the Chinese government.

Responding last week to the proposed Taiwan Consensus, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office under China’s State Council called Ms. Tsai’s guidelines “unrealistic and unacceptable.” The proposed policies “will make cross-strait negotiations impossible to continue, and cross-strait relations will once again become turbulent and unrestful,” the spokesman was quoted as saying in an English-language article from China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

And given that China has made no secret about its preference for the KMT’s Mr. Ma, it looks unlikely to back down from its position before voters head to the polls in January. This puts Ms. Tsai in the difficult position of having to craft a China policy that builds upon steps taken by Mr. Ma to thaw economic ties, while at the same time doing away with the cornerstone on which China and the KMT say it is based.

For now, Ms. Tsai has sought to do this by acknowledging China’s insistence on the “One China Principle” and pushing openly for a “balanced, moderate and stable” approach.

“We should get the order right – to get the consensus among ourselves before we talk to the Chinese,” she said during her interview Thursday [1 September 2011] with the Wall Street Journal. “We understand they have the insistency of the ‘One-China Principle’ and they have their own agenda to take care of…China must face the fact that Taiwan is a democracy and they have to treat Taiwan as a democracy. The way they conduct business with us, they all have to keep this in mind: Taiwan is a democracy.”

Despite the seemingly intractable divide between China and the DPP, some analysts say both sides would become more flexible if Ms. Tsai were to be elected and that a complete shutdown in ties would be unlikely.

Taiwan’s former foreign minister Chen Chien-jen said cross-Strait ties will likely continue at a slower pace if the DPP regains power because Beijing understands any extreme measures could backfire, leading to Taiwanese protests and anger.

“Beijing has said it wants to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people and thus it would handle the matter delicately with sensitivity. But it will and must make some stern statement to defend its position,” he added.

Meanwhile National Taiwan University economics professor Kevin Lin pointed out that trade ties flourished during DPP president Chen Shui-bian’s regime without any acknowledged consensus.

“Keep in mind that although there were no official bilateral talks between China and Taiwan under previous DPP regime, the trade interactions between the private sectors of the two sides still saw a huge boom,” he said.

But now that formal improvements in trade ties have begun, any break in those talks – and some analysts have predicted at least a year-long freeze in exchanges if Ms. Tsai were to win – would almost certainly be viewed as a step back by investors and businesses alike and would likely cost Ms. Tsai politically. Any impact of a break in the 1992 consensus on confidence levels is much more uncertain given a recent DPP poll that showed the majority of Taiwanese are unclear about what the consensus means.

But regardless of how many voters understand the consensus, it will remain a challenge for the DPP. Until January’s elections China, the KMT and the DPP are very likely to up the ante on their respective positions.

If Ms. Tsai wins the race – an August 23 Global Views Magazine poll put Mr. Ma slightly ahead with 39.6% support compared to 38.1% for Ms. Tsai – what happens next will more likely depend on how willing Ms. Tsai is to tweak the DPP’s rhetorical support for independence, and how willing China is to shut down relations and stir up ill will in Taiwan over the disagreement. Unfortunately Taiwan’s voters will have to calculate how flexible each side might be on their own.