Tsai must clarify cross-Straits position
OnMay 29, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will begin a 12-day trip to the United States. The DPP candidate for Taiwan’s 2016 leadership elections will meet withUS government officials, lawmakers, scholars and others with an interest in East Asian affairs. In February 2015, Tsai declared that “now is the time to build a newpolitical culture with transparency.” But her positions toward many of the most important issues of the day remain opaque and unclear, especially her plans for handling cross-Straits relations. This makes officials inWashington nervous.
The DPP’s track record represents another concern. After the DPP came to power in 2000, the island’s relations with both the Chinese mainland and theUS deteriorated. The tensions may be traced to a series of “surprises” initiated by former Taiwan leader Chen Shuibian. These “bombshells” included inflammatory statements about “Taiwan independence” and controversial calls for island-wide referendums and a new“Constitution”. US officials viewed the moves as irresponsible, provocative and destabilizing. By late 2004, the media described Chen as PresidentGeorgeW. Bush’s “least favorite democratically elected leader” and Taiwan’s media was rife with rumors that Bush had cursed him. That same year, political analysts claimed that “US-Taiwan relations are at their worst in the past 20 years”. Relations continued on a downward spiral until 2008.
Following Kuomintang candidateMa Ying-jeou’s election victory in 2008, Taipei returned to the 1992 Consensus, an arrangement whereby Taiwan and the Chinese mainland accept the principle of “one China”, but each side holds its own interpretation of what it means. By 2014, a total of 21 cross-Straits agreements had been signed. Analysts claimed that cross-Straits relations were at their best since the two sides were split by the civil war in 1949.
Despite differences with Beijing over other issues, Washington has warmly welcomed the cross-Straits rapprochement. Support for warming cross-Straits ties is even enshrined in the 2010National Security Strategy of theUS. It is also clear thatUS-Taiwan unofficial relations have not suffered as a result of the relaxation in tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Ma claims that this shows that “for the first time in history, theUS can maintain peaceful and friendly ties with both Taiwan and the mainland simultaneously.” US officials appear to agree with this assessment. During a recent Congressional hearing, Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state, went so far as to testify that, “US-Taiwan unofficial relations have never been better.”
As Tsai begins her visit to America, US officials cannot help but wonder whether she plans to move crossStraits relations forward or if she will become a troublemaker who embraces the failed policies of Chen Shuibian. The DPP rejects the 1992 Consensus, and when asked how she plans to approach relations with the Chinese mainland, Tsai has usually preferred to duck the issue. Recently, however, Tsai has begun to claim that she will “maintain the status quo.” Ma Ying-jeou describes this vague approach to cross-Straits relations as little more than “slogans,” while Eric Chu, Kuomintang chairman, blasts it as “gobbledygook to take people in.” In an attempt to defend herself, Tsai now claims that her policy is “the same as that of theUnited States.” Can this be true?
If Tsai is genuinely prepared to embrace theUS policy toward Taiwan, this is headline news. After all, during a recent visit to Beijing, President Barack Obama publicly declared that theUS does not support “Taiwan independence.” And like otherUS presidents, he has also promised to abide by theUS’ longstanding one-China policy.
Will Tsai make clear her position toward cross-Straits relations during her visit to theUS? Or will we only hear more “double-talk” and “gobbledygook?” If Tsai is unwilling or unable to provide clear answers to key questions concerning cross-Straits relations, theUS should publicly voice reservations about her ability to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait— just as it did during her previous campaign. Given theUS’ interests in theWestern Pacific, the stakes are too high for theUS to remain silent. The author is director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University.