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Frank Ching considers the balancing act of Taiwan's DPP in trying to engage Beijing while keeping its pro-independence stance
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Ever since President Ma Ying-jeou won re-election by defeating Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party has been agonising over how to mend fences with Beijing so as to have a chance to regain power in Taiwan.
Ma won the election because of his cross-strait policy, which has led to improved ties with the mainland. The DPP, meanwhile, was stuck with its pro-independence stance. Su Tseng-chang, who succeeded Tsai as party chairman, made relations with the mainland a new priority, and reinstated the party's China Affairs Department.
Beijing is aware that in a two-party democracy, Ma's Kuomintang could not expect to remain in power indefinitely. It therefore wants to be prepared for the day when the DPP might return to power.
So both Beijing and the DPP want to improve relations. Beijing has made it clear that DPP members could visit the mainland not as representatives of their party but in an "appropriate" capacity. Earlier this month, it succeeded in luring a DPP heavyweight - former party chairman Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, who went to the mainland ostensibly to attend a bartending competition.
Hsieh is known for his more relaxed views on China. In 2010, as mayor of Kaohsiung, he communicated with his counterpart in Xiamen , and said that "Xiamen and Kaohsiung are two cities in one country", implying acceptance of "one China".
During his trip, Hsieh was received by Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who is responsible for foreign policy, and the mainland's top cross-strait negotiator, Chen Yunlin.
No agreements were reached. But then none were expected, since Hsieh's visit was private and he did not represent his party. But the visit was a breakthrough, establishing high-level contact between the DPP and Beijing.
Hsieh sought to explore alternatives to Ma's policy of accepting the "1992 consensus", under which Taiwan and the mainland agree that there is "one China" but differ on the interpretation. Thus, Taiwan can say that "one China" is the Republic of China -Taiwan's formal name - while the mainland can say it is the People's Republic of China.
The DPP evidently feels that it cannot simply accept the "1992 consensus". If it did, there would be little to differentiate it from the KMT. Hence, Hsieh has worked on developing other formulations but, so far, none of his ideas has caught on, either in Taiwan or on the mainland.
The DPP is now in a dilemma. While it needs to attract voters by adopting a conciliatory stance towards Beijing, it is also fearful of losing its core pro-independence supporters if it switches position.
The party will need time to decide exactly how to position itself. But it seems clear that an ideological pro-independence stance is no longer viable in Taiwan for a party that wants to win over the electorate. Of course, all bets are off if Beijing radically shifts its policy and tries to force Taiwan to accept a political union with the mainland.