Taiwan's current stance on China could lead to trouble: The China Post

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during the National Day of the Republic of China celebration in Taipei on Oct 10, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on Oct 14, the paper urges President Tsai Ing-Wen to think through her government's approach to ties with China carefully as the current passive approach may lead to miscalculation in already tense cross-strait relations.

Two important developments this week are likely to shape cross-strait relations for the next four years.

The president's National Day speech touched only briefly on mainland China, and the parts that did were almost a carbon copy of what she proposed during her inaugural address.

By refusing to budge on the "1992 Consensus" while insisting on her formulation for cross-strait engagement (respecting the historical fact of the 1992 meeting, the R.O.C. Constitution, the Act Governing Relations across the Taiwan Strait, and other relevant laws), Tsai Ing-wen's strategy since taking office has come to this: Let Beijing break bridges while I preach the continuation of the status quo.

The second development was the announcement of Kuomintang (KMT) Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu's visit to Beijing next month, during which she is slated to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

This marks Hung's first visit as KMT leader and it could not come at a more inopportune time. Not only is her party in financial straits, it is also clinging to relevance, which has been fading since at least 2012.

As it continues to put off real soul-searching and reinvention, KMT leadership has resorted to attaching its relevance to the table scraps that Beijing deigns to hand out in order to pressure Tsai.

This stratagem, the proposed "deepening" of the "1992 Consensus" among the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will unfortunately have the opposite effect: placing much more emphasis on "one China" rather than the consensus' redeeming feature, "separate interpretations."

With Tsai's purposeful passivity toward cross-strait relations and Hung's untimely engagement with the CCP, the public is imbued with pessimism and mistrust.

This is probably what Tsai had planned all along.

Although her campaign stance mentioned maintaining the status quo, her opponents were right in pointing out that she never defined what that entailed.

The strength of this strategy of "non-doing" is that from a public relations perspective, one relegates the dirty work to those who probably can't (Beijing) and won't (diehard pan-blue constituents) vote for you anyway.

Their actions, whether to limit Taiwan's participation in world bodies or to chide the Tsai administration to reverse course, appear unreasonable to a large portion of the electorate who believe that the president said all the right things.

Is this form of public relations oriented cross-strait policy sustainable? At this very moment and with Hung's visit, it is.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) continues to reap bountiful harvests from citizen mistrust and negative perceptions of Beijing that will likely continue so long as China maintains its current stance of boxing in Taiwan in its heavy-handed way.

The Sunflower Movement has taught the party (and hopefully the KMT as well) that headlong rushes into deals with China must have at least the veneer of public transparency.

Another takeaway is that public suspicion (real or otherwise) toward China can be exploited more effectively with economic arguments rather than along purely nationalistic lines.

Yet displeasure toward a foe cannot be sustained or developed long-term in our age of global capitalism and supposedly unfettered markets.

For Tsai's current road to be successful, not only will she have to show convincingly that the economy can be improved, but also that it would be better off without over reliance on exporting to the mainland.

So far, it is much too early to tell whether this herculean task of industrial reorientation can be performed. Still in nascent form, the "New Southbound Policy" - which aims to target Asean, South Asia, Australia and New Zealand markets - will probably face obstruction from Beijing.

The Achilles Heel of Tsai's purposeful passivity is that it reinvites miscalculation as a variable in already tense cross-strait relations.

With both sides talking at each other rather than to one another, missteps, misinterpretations, misconceptions will be on the rise. As much as Taiwan needs to develop a balanced policy toward its neighbours, it cannot afford to allow cross-strait relations to become unpredictable and untenable.

Rather than exploit this weakness by flying into the arms of Beijing at the drop of a hat, the opposition must rebuild itself and work at a cross-strait policy that is less opaque and more conducive to people-to-people exchanges.

This process, while arduous, time-consuming and less likely to generate front page headlines, will engender confidence in the people for an alternative to passivity and rebuild public support for active engagement with Beijing.

* The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.

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