Cross-Strait Relations: The Challenges Ahead

Professor Steven Goldstein, Director of the Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop and Sophia Smith Professor of Government at Smith College, explains the impact of the DPP’s victory in Taiwan’s elections on cross-strait relations.

Taiwan’s newly-elected president, Tsai Ing-wen. Image: The Straits Times

Taiwan’s voters have propelled the island’s politics, as well as cross-strait relations, into uncharted waters by electing Tsai Ing-wen as president and giving the current opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the first time ever an absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan. A day after the elections it is, of course, not possible to predict the future. However, one can suggest some of the issues that will emerge in the months ahead.

In regard to Taiwan’s domestic politics, there are obvious questions regarding the nature of DPP governance. The Party is now in a situation quite different from the Chen Shui-bian presidency (2000–2008). On the positive side, as opposed to the earlier period, it has a number of experienced bureaucrats ready to serve and, most important of all, it controls both the executive and legislative bodies.

The major challenge, however, is how that political power will be exercised. Tsai has done a remarkable job of pulling together the badly divided and demoralized party that existed after the Chen Shui-bian administration. However, the DPP is a party that has, historically, been factionalized. Will divisions reemerge in the wake of victory? And what of the substance of policy? It is one thing to create an election platform, it is another to formulate policies for governance in an environment of potential party divisions and popular expectations.

Tsai has done a remarkable job of pulling together the badly divided and demoralized party that existed after the Chen Shui-bian administration.

Going beyond the issues of governance facing the DPP, one has to consider the future of political alignments in Taiwan. The local elections of 2014 and the course of this year’s elections have exposed vividly the organizational and leadership deficiencies of the Kuomintang as well as its unpopularity. It faces major challenges if it is to remain one of the principal players in Taiwan politics; not the least of which is the New Power Party (NPP) that emerged from the student demonstrations in the spring of 2014 and that made a strong showing after its limited campaign in this election. One has to wonder if the possibility of a future realignment of the Taiwan party system lies ahead.

Supporters of the opposition DPP during an election rally in Taoyuan city, Taiwan. Image: EPA

Then there is the question of the management of cross-strait relations by the DPP. Chen Shui-bian’s independence-oriented policy moved those relations in a crisis direction and alienated an American administration initially favorably disposed to him. Although some in Washington feared that Ma Ying-jeou’s more positive cross-strait policies might cause the island to drift into the mainland’s grasp, in general, his policies were consistent with American priorities of peace and stability in the strait and received administration support. This policy was, at least, preferable to the DPP’s alternative mainland policy that appeared to some in Washington as vague and unrealistic.

The mainland, of course, has been unambiguous in its preference for the Kuomintang as a negotiating partner. It was, historically, a party oriented toward the mainland in contrast to the DPP’s association with demands for the island’s independence. Thus, with the election of Ma, Beijing accepted an ambiguous formula — the “1992 Consensus” — defining the relationship of Taiwan to the mainland in an ill-defined “one China” context in the hope that it could be the beginning of a process of the island’s unification with the mainland.

The mainland, of course, has been unambiguous in its preference for the Kuomintang as a negotiating partner.

These expectations were not realized. Public opinion on Taiwan — and now the election results — demonstrated the popular concern with the direction of Ma’s mainland policy. Tsai Ying-wen and the DPP, however, are deeply distrusted by the mainland. During the election campaign, the mainland made no attempt to hide this distrust and various statements made it clear that there would be consequences for cross-strait relations if the DPP did not abandon any independence aspirations and accept some version of the “one China” formula used by the Ma administration for cross-strait policies. Tsai refused to do so, assuring both the United States and the mainland that she would seek to maintain the status quo of cross-strait relations, including the agreements reached during the Ma administration. This stance has been unacceptable to the mainland, which has indicated no readiness to explore alternatives to an embrace of the “one China” essence of the 1992 Consensus, if not necessarily the exact formulation Ma embraced.

Public opinion on Taiwan — and now the election results — demonstrated the popular concern with the direction of Ma’s mainland policy.

What will the future bring? Will the mainland be willing to explore alternative bases for cross-strait negotiations? Or will it immediately take actions to “punish” the voters of Taiwan? What will be the scope of these actions? Will they be limited (such as restricting Taiwan’s international space) or more drastic (for example, economic sanctions)? If so, when will these actions be taken? Before Tsai becomes president on May 20 or after? Will Beijing follow a policy of waiting to see what she says or does? Whether the mainland’s immediate response is immediate or not, if it is hostile will it spark a reaction in Taiwan that will start downward spiral as each side toughens its position?

Or will each side be ready to make adjustments that will make continuation of past relations possible and begin to negotiate for an new, formula acceptable to both sides that would somehow satisfy the DPP’s insistence on Taiwan’s sovereignty and the mainland’s bottom line that Taiwan is a part of China?

And what of American policy? Washington has been careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past when it expressed open doubts about Tsai’s approach. Ma’s policies have been supported and expectations expressed that Tsai will maintain the momentum of the past. However, what if the DPP’s posture or mainland rigidity makes this not possible? Will Washington pressure the DPP to accommodate the mainland’s demands? Or will it draw a distinction between intervening to prevent Taipei from doing something provocative (as in the case of Chen Shui-bian) and intervening to pressure it do something (such as accommodate mainland demands and recognize that Taiwan is a part of China)? Or, on the other hand, how far might the U.S. go to warn Beijing about the consequences of it putting pressure on Taiwan? In general, to what extent might Washington abandon its general reluctance to intervene in cross-strait relations in response to these new challenges? Finally, there is the question of how the tenor of Sino-American relations and the development of a new economic architecture in the Pacific will affect American policy toward China?

In sum, these questions suggest that cross-strait relations are entering a challenging period characterized by a changing political dynamic in Taiwan and the need for both sides to reexamine past policy positions and be willing to find new bases for the relationship if they genuinely wish to see the continuation of peace and stability in the area.

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