Why it’s in Beijing’s best interests to keep cross-strait relations on an even keel
Michal Thim says China may not like the ambiguous wording in Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech, but it will find enough there to support peaceful co-existence, based on a mutual tolerance of differences
The inauguration speech of Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, was bound to disappoint China long before its first words were uttered. It was clear that Tsai was not going to include references to either “one China” or the “1992 consensus”.
Instead, she referred to cross-strait arrangements using ambiguous wording. Primarily, she noted that in 1992, “the two institutions representing each side across the strait ... arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings”. “Since 1992, over 20 years of interactions and negotiations across the strait have enabled and accumulated outcomes which both sides must collectively cherish and sustain; and it is based on such existing realities and political foundations that the stable and peaceful development of the cross-strait relationship must be continuously promoted,” she said.
This may not be exactly what Beijing wants to hear but ambiguity in diplomatic speech is often of greater value than clarity. Tsai did not refer to “one China”, yet she also did not explicitly declare that cross-strait ties are relations between two sovereign states.
There is considerable room to keep relations free of major tensions if Beijing truly wishes. But the main reason why Beijing should focus on the positive aspects of Tsai’s inauguration speech is that it does not have a better option.
China’s Taiwan policy is in need of a major overhaul and Beijing only has itself to blame. Its view of cross-strait relations became too contingent on the Kuomintang staying in power. But Taiwanese voters won’t accept de facto single-party rule. Taiwan’s democracy is a great source of pride for Taiwanese across all political divisions and voters will insist they have the main say in selecting a government that represents them. If Beijing’s only reaction is to double down on insistence over the “1992 consensus”, then it can hardly be surprised if it receives a lukewarm response.
Moreover, networks cultivated by Beijing in Taiwan are mostly KMT-linked interests. That was the easy path to follow. After the KMT was defeated in the 2004 elections, it was a bit too eager to reach out to its erstwhile rival, the Chinese Communist Party, which reciprocated in kind.
After all, both parties shared a common interest: to ensure the Democratic Progressive Party administration failed, which would in turn ensure the KMT returned to power. However, eight years after the KMT retook the helm, not only has this approach failed to win over hearts and minds, it also limits Beijing’s ability to employ punitive measures.
Whatever punishment Beijing may come up with to express its displeasure with the new administration, the first to suffer will be the KMT-linked local power holders and businesses.
Nor should the KMT be taken for granted as a permanent ally of the Communist Party. Relations between the two flourished in the past because Beijing was willing to recognise the utility of the “1992 consensus” for both parties: it is a tool they have in common to suppress the DPP. The KMT decided to ignore the fact that the Communist Party does not adhere to the part about different interpretations of “one China”, whereas the Communist Party pretended there was no other wording than “one China”.
What really happened in the past eight years was not an adherence to the “1992 consensus”, as defined by former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi in 2000, but mutual tolerance of different interpretations of what the “1992 consensus” means.
Today, the KMT has a fundamentally different problem: it stands at the crossroads between ideological purity and pragmatic realignment. The former leads to gradual marginalisation in Taiwan’s politics; the latter takes the party further away from unification elements of its ideology but brings it more in tune with the sentiments of the electorate. For the moment, the hardline elements in the KMT have defeated the moderates. Beijing could be tempted to use the same tactics that worked when the DPP held executive power. The problem now is that the KMT has also lost its grip on the legislature, which leaves Beijing to deal with the DPP in power without substantial support from inside Taiwan.
That leaves Beijing with a range of unsavoury options, including “stealing” Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, cutting the number of mainland tourists going to Taiwan, stepping up pressure on limiting Taiwan’s international participation, or economic sanctions. Employment of any of these measures may be tempting. After all, the disparity in overall power would suggest that China can squarely dictate any conditions for cross-strait relations. This is, however, a misleading perspective.
Taiwan’s democratic elections generate considerable soft power. Not the kind that comes with throwing investment money at developing countries or that is expected to be produced by government-sponsored cultural institutions, but by projecting a positive image of Taiwan as a progressive democracy. What Beijing sees as an “incomplete answer sheet” is perceived by much of the rest of the world as a sincere offer for constructive development of cross-strait relations offered by Taiwan’s first female president. Threatening Tsai with suspension of talks until she says a few magic words just makes Beijing look like a bully.
Cross-strait relations could very well become full of conflict but, this time, Taiwan would not be seen as the troublemaker; it would be just another neighbour with strained relations. It does not have to be that way, though. Tsai’s speech offers enough space to step back and embrace the ambiguity. The ball is in Beijing’s court.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank Association for International Affairs