Taiwan's President-elect on tightrope walk: The China Post

An emotional Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen after her election victory in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 16, 2016.
An emotional Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen after her election victory in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on Jan 18, 2015, The China Post says Taiwan's next president Tsai Ing-wen will find a way to maintain the nation's current practical strategy of cross-strait detente.

Eligible voters went to the polls to elect their president and a new Legislative Yuan. The turnout was not high despite the largest ever number of parties vying for the 113 seats of the parliament in Taiwan's first legislative elections held alongside the presidential race.

Many breadwinners, middle-aged and older, stayed at home. So did most of the sway voters. They all seemed to have known long before the elections what would be coming for the next four years.

Mr Eric Chu lost, as had been predicted, because angry voters wanted to punish the Kuomintang (KMT) for President Ma Ying-jeou's hopelessly poor eight-year administration, on which the people had placed confident expectations in 2008.

As had the ruling Kuomintang, which enjoyed uninterrupted parliamentary majority control. Ms Tsai was elected president in a manner similar to Mr Ma, voted in simply because the people wished to chastise the government of then-President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Ms Tsai has promised she will try to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Yet it is not yet known what her status quo entails. She demurred on her stance on the "1992 Consensus" in the presidential debate.

She said she would aim to engage in a new discussion on the content of the "1992 Consensus" with Beijing, adding that she hopes Beijing will respond with respect.

The "1992 Consensus" is a tacit agreement reached in that year, known also as the "one China with different interpretations" principle, whereby both Taipei and Beijing agree that there is but one China, whose connotations can be orally and separately enunciated. It is a modus vivendi providing the legal basis for the continued peaceful development of cross-strait relations.

It is far from certain whether Beijing - which sees the "1992 Consensus" as a prerequisite for any talks and has long regarded the DPP's pro-independence stance negatively - will accept Ms Tsai's terms.

Ms Tsai will be walking a tightrope in keeping the status quo - which requires her to find a middle way that can both convince Beijing and her DPP supporters - and managing domestic issues such as the economy.

Taiwan's economy has remained sluggish since the financial tsunami of 2008, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and global economies (including Taiwan's) rely ever more heavily on China for growth. Taiwan's gross national product grew just 1 percent in 2015. It could post negative growth as world economies struggle. Possible economic pressure from China will certainly not help.

The KMT has failed because it has not found a way to retain the people's trust in the past eight years.

With the original sin of its authoritarian past, trust has not been the party's strong suit. The DPP, on the other hand, has long failed to find a way to deal with mainland China practically. A confrontational approach will satisfy DPP supporters and many young voters who harbor distrust of China. But as president, Ms Tsai cannot afford risking Taiwan's national and economic stability by returning to the cross-strait hostility under then-President Chen. China is simply too big to ignore.

This paper expresses hope that Ms Tsai can find a way to maintain the nation's current practical strategy of cross-strait detente. The KMT's failure stems not from the formula of a modus vivendi but from the party's confusion of a cross-strait detente strategy with a pro-Beijing stance.

The policy of cross-strait detente - including the "1992 Consensus" - is a key invention of diplomatic ambiguity that gives Taiwan and China a platform for peaceful dialogue and allows Taiwan time and space to build up power and influence (both economic and diplomatic), which will strengthen the nation's position in future political negotiations with Beijing.

* The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.