What Taiwan’s Presidential Election Means For Cross-Strait Relations

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By Alan Romberg: 

Tsai Ing-wen’s resounding victory in Taiwan’s January 16 presidential election, as well as that of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the legislative elections, follows on the party’s successes in the local elections in November 2014. Polls had consistently indicated Tsai held a very big lead over her rivals, but many thought that, while she would very likely win, the large lead polls suggested would not hold up at the end of the day. The fact that it did – and that the unclear picture regarding the legislature resolved itself in such a strong way in the DPP’s favor – may have stemmed in part from an ill-defined but nonetheless very real desire for “change” among Taiwan voters. But it also clearly stood as a repudiation of Kuomintang (KMT) governance under the outgoing Ma administration. This included the handling of both domestic issues and cross-Strait relations.

A significant level of concern has developed over time about whether Taiwan was becoming too dependent on the Mainland economically – with not only economic but also long-term political implications. Tsai addressed that concern by saying she would stand up more strongly for Taiwan’s interests, including in diversifying external economic linkages to a greater degree. She also pledged to ensure that the benefits of cross-Strait economic dealings would be more equitably shared.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to interpret the election as a mandate for total overhaul of cross-Strait relations. The crucial importance of cross-Strait economic ties to Taiwan’s well-being is simply a reality, and it is well-understood that if those relations were badly damaged, it would be to Taiwan’s serious detriment.

Tsai fully understands that, and while adjusting those relations, she will also seek to maintain robust cross-Strait ties. No one should forget that she campaigned heavily on the notion of maintaining the status quo of peace and stability in relations with the Mainland. While everyone recognizes that this has a heavy political component, it also is based on maintenance of a strong economic relationship.
Some may worry that this would represent a compromise of her – and the DPP’s – principles. In fact, however, all of this is fully consistent with her commitment to govern in accordance with the will of the people.

Accordingly, even setting aside the very difficult challenges Tsai will face in seeking to reinvigorate and redirect Taiwan’s economy along the lines she has outlined, much hinges on the degree to which she can persuade Beijing that she not only is not a “second Chen Shui-bian,” the independence-oriented DPP president from 2000-2008, but also that she buys into the political basis underlying the dramatic development of cross-Strait ties at least to a degree sufficient to cause the Mainland to hold off on the kinds of “punitive” steps that one might otherwise expect.

In its first response to the election outcome, Beijing once again rejected a view Tsai has expressed, i.e., that the DPP’s substantial win that reflected the democratically expressed will of the Taiwan people would lead Beijing to adjust in a pragmatic way and come to terms with the reality of present-day Taiwan. Reiterating points Xi Jinping has personally made in the past, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office was particularly insistent that “major policies and principles toward Taiwan are consistent and clear and will not change because of the outcome of elections in the Taiwan region.” Expressing a willingness to deal with all who recognize that the two sides of the Strait belong to “one China” and maintain the “common political foundation” of adherence to the “1992 Consensus” and opposition to “Taiwan independence,” the statement expressed a “rock-hard” determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

So far, Tsai has tried to suggest she will not upset what has been achieved over the past several years or take issue with the basis on which it has been achieved, and that that she will not promote “Taiwan independence.” But it would be astounding if she either embraced the “1992 Consensus” or renounced the idea of “Taiwan independence;” she will not do that.

So the issue becomes whether, in the period between now and inauguration day on May 20, she and the Mainland can come up with a set of measures and formulations Tsai can adopt that, while not directly adhering to the mantra Beijing has insisted upon, nonetheless are seen by Beijing as sufficient to check the box.

As the United States proceeds to strengthen relations across a broad spectrum of issues with both Taiwan and the PRC, it will continue to watch cross-Strait developments very closely consistent with what it has openly labeled its “profound interest” in the maintenance of peace and stability in the Strait. “Restraint and flexibility” will remain central tenets of Washington’s approach to both sides.

Clearly neither side wants a security crisis, and I don’t believe there will be one. But there is always a danger that at some point emotions will rise, with unforeseeable consequences.  Hence Washington will continue to play an active role to ensure that doesn’t happen, a role that is already playing out with the dispatch of senior envoys to both Taipei and Beijing.

Alan Romberg is a distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at Stimson.

Photo credit: tomscy2000 via flickr 

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