Taiwan-China ties set to cool but will stay calm

Why DPP election victory won't lead to the turbulence some predict

With the victory of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan's presidential election, it has been argued that the Taiwan Strait's relative stability of the past eight years could recede.

The Economist magazine, for example, suggests that "eight years of uneasy truce across the Taiwan Strait are coming to an end". The potential for miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait cannot be discounted, but the common belief that the cross-strait trajectory is headed towards instability as an upshot of the DPP's election victory is overstated. Although there could be more friction between a Tsai-led Taipei and Beijing, the Taiwan Strait is unlikely to witness a return to the crisis levels of the acrimonious period under the DPP's Chen Shui-bian, when he was president for eight years from 2000 to 2008.

For a start, today's DPP is a considerably different political animal from Mr Chen's DPP. Under Ms Tsai, the party's cross-strait policy has evolved, becoming more centrist and ambiguous in its slant. Ms Tsai's DPP is, of course, still far less welcoming to China than the historically dominant Kuomintang (KMT), but it has moved away from the brand of pro-independence adventurism that had imperiled cross-strait ties and cost Mr Chen dearly.

There is, in fact, greater alignment between the DPP and KMT's basic cross-strait positions than commonly perceived. Ms Tsai's declaration that she would preserve the "status quo of peace and stability" is in principle not fundamentally different from President Ma Ying-jeou's "Three Nos" policy - no unification, no independence, no use of force. Mr Ma of the KMT is due to hand over to Ms Tsai in May.

In 2014, the DPP published its mainland policy review which called for the party to "proactively and confidently participate (in cross-strait dialogue)" and pursue cross-strait economic interactions "on the basis of the existing foundation", exhortations not vastly out of sync with the KMT's ideas.

The main difference between the DPP and KMT's positions is the degree of the tilt. The KMT's notion of the status quo leans Taiwan closer to China (in particular, through greater economic integration), while the DPP's version is more about maintaining Taipei's distance from Beijing.

Some observers point out that Ms Tsai has yet to explicitly endorse the 1992 Consensus which Beijing has stated is one of the preconditions for cross-strait dialogue. While that is true, the new Taiwanese leader has also not outrightly rejected the 1992 Consensus and appears to understand that any refutation of the one-China principle will not be tolerated by Beijing.


Ms Tsai's supporters cheering after her landslide win against the Kuomintang last weekend. A Tsai-led Taiwan is likely to persist with existing institutional mechanisms to pursue cross-strait relations with China, although the frequency or pace of exchanges may well decline. -PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Tellingly, at a recent speech at the the Washington-based think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Ms Tsai spoke of the importance of securing the "accumulated outcomes of more than 20 years of negotiations and exchanges" - which apparently includes the 1992 Consensus. She also said that "these accumulated outcomes will serve as the firm basis of (her) efforts to further the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations".

Admittedly, such language could well be electioneering manoeuvres or clever rhetoric meant to reassure international audiences. Yet there is considerable political incentive for the DPP to pursue more conciliatory positions towards China, since it would be in its interest to demonstrateto the Taiwanese people that, like the KMT, it, too, can pursue dialogue with Beijing without compromising the island's de facto independence.

Indeed, Ms Tsai has spoken of changing the perception that the KMT is the only party capable of managing relations with Beijing, and talked about breaking out from the "KMT-CCP framework" in China-Taiwan relations, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. Significantly, she has not ruled out the possibility of meeting President Xi Jinping once she becomes Taiwan's president.

CHINA: DISTRUST AND PRAGMATISM TOWARDS THE DPP

For China, it remains deeply suspicious of the DPP and Ms Tsai's longer-term intentions. Mainland observers point out that the DPP has yet to rescind the party's 2007 Normal Nation Resolution or the 1999 Resolution on Taiwan's future, which are premised on the notion of Taiwan as a sovereign entity separate from China. They have also not forgotten Ms Tsai's role in the crafting of the controversial "Two States Theory", or her earlier time as the head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council from 2000-2004, a period when cross-strait ties were particularly fraught.

But despite these misgivings, the reality is that Beijing has limited policy options vis-a-vis Taipei. Closer economic ties have not translated into Taiwanese political goodwill towards China, while the Chinese political solution of "one country, two systems" has become even more unappealing in democratic Taiwan in the wake of political unrest in Hong Kong.

The fact that Chinese military might has yet to reach parity with that of Washington will also limit President Xi Jinping's options. Only if Taiwan declares formal independence would Mr Xi turn to a military solution. Even then, it is a battle he cannot be sure of winning, while a cross-strait war would be sure to jeopardise the gains of three decades of reform and opening up in China.

Moreover, Mr Xi's overwhelming priority in the next two years before the 19th Party Congress will be to stabilise the Chinese economy and he would not want to be distracted by renewed trouble in the Taiwan Strait, alongside China's continuing problems in the South China Sea.

This limited policy room means that Beijing can ill-afford not to consider a more open attitude towards the DPP, especially given that the latter will dominate Taiwanese politics in the foreseeable future.

Interestingly, in the past few years, there have been signs that Beijing is starting to adjust its traditional attitude towards the DPP, quietly allowing some limited or indirect CCP-DPP interactions. Notable DPP figures, such as former premier Frank Hsieh and Tainan city mayor William Lai, have made low-key visits to China.

In 2014, the head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office visited Taiwan and made the point of visiting the DPP's Kaohsiung stronghold, meeting its mayor Chen Chu, a senior DPP politician who is also Ms Tsai's campaign chief. So as long as a Taiwanese leader steers clear of overtly pushing for Taiwanese independence, there will be some room for negotiation with Beijing.

And so far, Ms Tsai appears to be that sort of leader. A Tsai-led Taiwan is likely to persist with existing institutional mechanisms to pursue cross-strait relations with China, although the frequency or pace of exchanges may well decline.

While the Tsai regime will resist moving Taipei closer to Beijing, it will not repeat the previous DPP-led government's mistake of pursuing Taiwanese independence - it would have too much to lose.

Ms Tsai will resemble a cold Ma Ying-jeou in overall tenor of orientation towards China. This situation will not fully satisfy Beijing, but it at least satisfies the bottom line in Chinese policy to avert Taiwan's formal independence. We are therefore likely to see calm, but colder, waters in the Taiwan Strait.


•Hoo Tiang Boon is an assistant professor and James Char is a research analyst with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan-China ties set to cool but will stay calm'. Print Edition | Subscribe