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How Should Beijing Engage with the Next Taiwanese Administration?

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How Should Beijing Engage with the Next Taiwanese Administration?

Regardless of who wins Taiwan’s January 13 election, Beijing will have a golden opportunity to initiate talks without preconditions.

How Should Beijing Engage with the Next Taiwanese Administration?
Credit: Depositphotos

The presidential election in Taiwan, set for January 13, is proving to be a tight race between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Lai Ching-te, more commonly called William Lai, and the Kuomintang candidate, Hou Yu-ih; the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate, Ko Wen-je’s campaign is increasingly becoming a lost cause. The most recent MyFormosa poll (poll number 97, released on December 26) gives Lai an almost 10 percent lead, his largest lead in the MyFormosa poll in months. Other polls indicate the gap is much narrower. An ET-Today poll released on December 27 documents Lai at 38.1 percent and Hou at 34.8 percent. Overall, while Lai continues to hold an edge over Hou, the result will remain unpredictable until election day. 

For mainland China, both Lai and Hou present a dilemma. A potential Lai victory would expose Beijing’s strategy of freezing the DPP administration out of the cross-Strait political process as a failure. The DPP would demonstrate its ability to win elections without dealing with Beijing. A Hou victory is also problematic; Hou defies Beijing’s expectation for a KMT candidate. Hou claimed that he would accept the 1992 Consensus, Beijing’s precondition of cross-Strait negotiation, and restart the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed during the Ma Ying-jeou administration. However, Hou prioritizes a strong defense against Beijing’s gray-zone tactics and a potential invasion by enhancing cooperation with the United States. He also places human rights at the front and center of the cross-strait conversation, a topic Beijing does not want to discuss. In essence, regardless of whether Lai or Hou becomes president, the leadership in Taiwan will not defer to Beijing. 

How should Beijing, therefore, deal with the next administration? 

The previous two DPP administrations provide some lessons. Chen Shuibian’s 2000 election victory was unlikely. His victory was the result of splitting the vote between the KMT’s Lien Chan, who received an endorsement from outgoing President Lee Teng-hui, and the popular James Soong, who had to start his own party to run in the race. The pan-Blue camp’s voting split allowed Chen to snatch victory with less than 40 percent of the popular vote. From the beginning, Chen faced legitimacy problems due to the lack of a large mandate and the KMT’s continued control over the Legislative Yuan. In addition, many worried that Chen’s regime might adopt a radical pro-independence policy because Chen was a deep Green independence advocate. 

Therefore, Chen’s first task was to demonstrate a “presidential temperament.” Chen assured that he would play responsibly by the rule book during his inaugural speech. In the speech, he first appealed to “the same ancestral, cultural, and historical background” and said he would deal jointly “with the question of a future ’one China.’” This quote showed that Chen was willing to uphold the One China Principle in the ROC Constitution. Furthermore, Chen made a series of promises. As the elected ROC president, Chen declared that he would “abide by the Constitution, maintain the sovereignty, dignity, and security of our country, and ensure the well-being of all citizens.” He further promised that he would not “declare independence…. change the national title… push forth the inclusion of the so-called ‘state-to-state’ description in the Constitution…. [or] promote a referendum to change the status quo in regard to the question of independence or unification.” Finally, he claimed that “there is no question of abolishing the Guidelines for National Unification and the National Unification Council.”

In addition, Chen showed his desire to increase exchanges with the mainland. The economic development in mainland China and Taiwan and Taiwan’s democratization could serve as a foundation for interaction. Therefore, Chen believed that increasing interactions would lead to increasing stability and prosperity under such a foundation. He further laid out three principles of cross-Strait interaction: “goodwill reconciliation, active cooperation, and permanent peace.” In general, Chen wanted to continue the cross-Strait economic exchange which had become increasingly important for Taiwan’s economic growth.  

However, Chen’s good intentions met strong challenges inside and outside Taiwan. The KMT, with the Legislative Yuan at its back, obstructed the Chen administration as much as possible by shooting down Chen’s preferred laws and policies. When Chen decided to veto a nuclear power plant project, the KMT protested fiercely, leading to the resignation of Chen’s KMT premier, Tang Fei. When Chen pushed to defund the nuclear power plant construction, KMT Legislative Yuan members even tried to impeach him. On the cross-Strait issue, Beijing also decided to abandon cross-strait dialogues. Beijing’s goal was to freeze out the Chen regime and thus viewed any dialogue as giving Chen credibility and legitimacy. Therefore, while Chen wanted to finalize the “Three Links” agreement with Beijing to rally support from Taiwanese businesspeople, Beijing decided to shut down the Chen administration’s negotiation attempts.

Challenges from the CCP and the KMT forced Chen to abandon his stable cross-Strait policies. He realized that if he wanted to have a chance to win reelection in 2004, he had to get closer to his deep Green supporters. Therefore, Chen gradually shifted toward an open, pro-independence stance. In 2002, Chen declared “One Country on Each Side” during a speech. In 2003, Chen announced his intention to push for a new Taiwan Constitution. Besides switching to a pro-independence stance, Chen also adopted Taiwanese populistic identity politics. He reinterpreted Taiwanese history to de-emphasize Chinese cultural influence. In addition, the DPP adopted a new textbook guideline that placed the teaching of Taiwanese history and culture at the center of education. 

The appeal to identity politics paid off. While many expected the 2004 election to be one-sided after Lien and Soong found a way to put themselves on one ticket, Chen surprisingly stayed in the race. Then, the turning point came. A day before the election, Chen and his running mate, Annette Lu, were shot during the regular “sweep the street” campaign. Hours after the shooting, Sisy Chen, a DPP-turned-KMT-leaning TV commentator, called the incident a DPP fraud to rally sympathy votes. The apparent assassination attempt on Chen Shuibian and Sisy Chen’s antipathetic statements turned voters away from the KMT. More importantly, Chen ordered police and military forces to stay on duty during the election, arguably depriving votes from a heavily pro-Blue population. These factors led to Chen’s surprising victory by less than 30,000 votes. After the win, Chen continued his identity politics. He pushed for a national referendum and constitution revision without success. However, he did suspend the National Unification Guideline and the National Unification Council, drawing concerns from both the U.S. and Beijing. 

Similarly, when the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen was elected in 2016, she had to show her presidential temperament regarding cross-Strait policy. When Tsai ran for president in 2012, U.S. State Department officials questioned whether she was “responsible” enough to become the president in an off-record conversation. Tsai’s primary job in 2016 was to demonstrate she would maintain cross-Strait stability. In her 2016 inauguration speech, Tsai claimed that she would “safeguard the sovereignty and territory of the Republic of China” “in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of China.” The ROC constitution is a “one China” constitution. Thus, she reiteratedhera rejection ofTaiwan’sn independence. Furthermore, she declared that “the new government will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.” This statement showed that she would not drastically alter the existing cross-Strait policy in Taiwan. 

Another big question was the 1992 Consensus, which the DPP had historically rejected. In her speech, Tsai acknowledged the positive outcomes of the 1992 Wang-Koo meeting in Hong Kong, which led to the 1992 Consensus. She further maintained that her administration would conduct cross-Strait relations based on “existing foundations,” which included four elements: “The first element is the fact of the 1992 talks between the two institutions representing each side across the Strait (SEF & ARATS), when there was jointacknowledgmentt of setting aside differences to seek common ground. This is a historical fact. The second element is the existing Republic of China constitutional order. The third element pertains to the outcomes of over twenty years of negotiations and interactions across the Strait. And the fourth relates to the democratic principle and prevalent will of the people of Taiwan.”

Tsai admitted the 1992 Consensus as a “historical fact.” In addition, she recognized the outcome of the talks as “setting aside differences to seek common ground.” The “common ground” both sides sought was “one China,” and the differences being set aside were “different interpretations.” In addition, Tsai highlighted “the outcomes of over twenty years of negotiations and interactions across the Strait,” which was based on the 1992 Consensus, and declared to sustain and promote “the stable and peaceful development of the cross-Strait relationship” “based on such existing realities and political foundations.” In essence, Tsai recognized the 1992 Consensus in her speech without explicitly saying so. 

However, Tsai’s reconciliatory stance did not impress Beijing. Almost immediately after Tsai’s election, Beijing froze her administration out of existing cross-Strait talks and launched propaganda attacks. Rather than accepting Tsai’s tacit acceptance of the 1992 Consensus, Beijing pushed Tsai to accept it openly, which would be unacceptable for Tsai’s pan-Green political base. In addition, Beijing tried to leverage cross-Strait economic ties to punish Tsai’s unwillingness to accept the 1992 Consensus more directly. 

After a disastrous 2018 midterm election, in which the DPP lost more than half of the local governments it had previously controlled, Tsai decided to turn to identity appeals. Moreover, Beijing’s crackdown following the Hong Kong protests in the summer of 2019 provided a crucial weapon to Tsai during the 2020 election campaign. The Taiwanese public was extremely concerned over the Hong Kong crackdown and became increasingly suspicious of cross-Strait exchanges, fearing that expanding exchanges might lead to mainland infiltration and pressure. Tsai beat her opponent, the KMT’s cross-Strait exchange promoting Han Kuo-yu, by labeling him without evidence as a “CCP agent.” 

Like Chen Shuibian’s second term, Tsai’s second term developed a tougher position in cross-Strait relations. In her 2020 inauguration speech, Tsai declared that her administration “will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo.” 

After the January 13 election, Beijing will have a golden opportunity to initiate negotiations with Taiwan. The examples of Chen and Tsai show that even DPP presidents offered concessions and moderated their cross-Strait positions in exchange for potential talks with the mainland at the beginning of their administrations. Beijing’s great repeated mistake has been trying to freeze out and obstruct DPP administrations; it led to their increasing appeal to identity politics because they saw “playing responsibly” as having no political utility while identity politics generated significant gains in elections at least. Therefore, Beijing’s best bet is to seize the golden opportunity and initiate negotiations with the next administration without preconditions, regardless of who the president is. The negotiations will likely foster breakthroughs in cross-Strait matters and encourage the next administration to “stay responsible” for its entire tenure.