By Shawn Lynott – Taiwanese people must choose between two divergent paths in the upcoming January 2012 presidential election, which bears heavily on their relationship with mainland China. Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and challenger for the presidency, seeks to strengthen Taipei’s relationship with Washington and scale back incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou‘s interaction with Beijing, all the while acknowledging that the island’s relationships with both the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are extremely important. DPP supporters fear that Ma’s current level of interaction with the mainland brings them closer to absorption by Beijing. Moreover, the DPP downplays the risk of provoking China’s hostility if the PRC leadership perceives Taiwan drifting further away. This situation has potentially serious implications for Taiwan’s future, and possibly East Asian security, if the challenging party returns to executive power in Taipei.
The DPP appears to prefer the stability and security it expects the United States to provide rather than a smoother relationship with mainland China. For example, Tsai openly encouraged the US to abandon current visa restrictions to Taiwan’s senior officials. While observing that the United States is Taiwan’s most important and reliable partner and emphasizing that it is the only state committed to the island’s security, she also reiterated the island’s value to Washington, reminding the audience that Taipei has donated to the post-war Afghan reconstruction and prevented the shipment of dual-use technology to Iran and North Korea in recent years.
Tsai criticized Ma’s “mutual non-denial, mutual non-recognition” policy with the PRC, claiming it weakens Taiwan’s international position. While the KMT often relies on the “1992 Consensus” (a tacit understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there is “one China,” but that each side is free to express its own interpretation of “one China”) to explain policies and decisions, Tsai argues this offers no solid foundation, and has frequently denied the Consensus’ existence. Rather, the DPP calls for a “Taiwan Consensus” about relations with Beijing first, which then can become the basis of cross-Strait relations. Since no more than 50 percent of Taiwan’s population supports either party, Tsai finds it imprudent of any administration to negotiate with China without a consensus among voters.
The DPP asserts that China must be willing to understand, if not appreciate, the democratic process, indicating Beijing – not Taipei – must adjust its policy. Tsai herself even referred to the island as “practically independent.” Moreover, she insists upon Taiwan maintaining its stance, including refusal to negotiate with China on the basis of the current “1992 Consensus.” The DPP also advocates diversifying economic partners to lessen the Mainland’s influence over Taiwan, and encouraging other states to assist in compelling Beijing to ensure more security for foreign investors in China. In any event, although the party supports a more constructive relationship with Beijing, it clearly does not advocate President Ma’s policy or continuing at the current pace.
Rejecting the “1992 Consensus,” or any other approach based on “one China,” reverses Ma’s approach and jeopardizes the current cross-Strait relationship by rescinding what Chinese leaders felt was an agreement compelling Taiwan to refrain from seeking independence. Moreover, the DPP’s previous party leader and Taiwan’s last president, Chen Shui-bian, openly advocated permanent separation from the mainland, leaving Beijing reluctant to trust anybody representing his party. As this administration change would call peace across the Strait back into question, Washington’s leaders have also privately voiced their preference for KMT policy. For this reason, Tsai and the DPP face an uphill battle if they hope to elicit any significant international support.
The DPP and KMT are similar in acknowledging that polls indicate the majority of Taiwanese people prefer to maintain the current ambiguity regarding Taiwan’s status of not being an internationally recognized independent state, but also not being a province of China. Moreover, both candidates pledge to uphold stability, promising to meet international expectations and refrain from upsetting cross-Strait peace and stability or attempting to alter the status quo. At the same time, both seek more protection for Taiwan investors in the mainland (currently the subject of difficult negotiations between Taipei and Beijing), though Ma approaches this with bilateral talks, where Tsai advocates diversification, and calls on other states to assist in pressuring Beijing to enhance investment security.
Both possible election outcomes carry risk and opportunity. As cross-Strait relations risk deteriorating to what they were before 2008, the best outcome Taiwan can hope for is continued cooperation from PRC, with Beijing doing little more than warning Taipei not to claim formal independence. Voters face a difficult choice determining the better prospect for their security, prosperity, and political well-being.
Photo Credits: Left – By Jiang, Edited by Petar Marjanovi via Wikipedia Commons. Right – By David Reid via Flickr.