Tsai should clar­ify po­si­tion on cross-Straits ties

China Daily (Canada) - - TORONTO -

Tai­wan is ex­pected to be on the agenda when US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama meets with his Chi­nese coun­ter­part Xi Jin­ping next week. Some are in­creas­ingly ner­vous about the pos­si­bil­ity of a Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party vic­tory in Tai­wan’s forth­com­ing lead­er­ship elec­tion. And since DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen ap­pears to be pulling away from the pack, shouldWash­ing­ton share Bei­jing’s anx­i­ety over a pos­si­ble DPP win?

Even if the DPP wins in 2016, it will not be its first win in a ma­jor po­lit­i­cal cam­paign. In 2000, Chen Shui-bian, the DPP can­di­date, was elected leader— also in a three­way con­test— and his track record is not re­as­sur­ing.

Dur­ing his ten­ure, Chen en­gi­neered a se­ries of “sur­prises” that in­fu­ri­ated for­mer US pres­i­dent Ge­orgeW. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. The “bomb­shells” in­cluded in­flam­ma­tory state­ments about Tai­wan “in­de­pen­dence” and con­tro­ver­sial calls for is­land-wide ref­er­en­dums and a new “con­sti­tu­tion”. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials viewed Chen’s moves as ir­re­spon­si­ble, provoca­tive and desta­bi­liz­ing, and warned that the US is not re­quired by law to de­fend Tai­wan.

Given the DPP’s check­ered history, it came as lit­tle sur­prise whenWash­ing­ton voiced doubts about Tsai’s can­di­dacy dur­ing her fal­ter­ing 2012 elec­tion bid. And it ex­plains why she is now try­ing to dis­tance her­self from the Chen ad­min­is­tra­tion. In Fe­bru­ary 2015, she even de­clared: “I am not Chen Shui-bian.”

If Tsai is not Chen, who is she?

Tsai of­ten “flip flops” on is­sues or em­braces am­bigu­ous po­si­tions. A key ex­am­ple is her re­fusal to en­dorse the “1992 Con­sen­sus”, an ar­range­ment whereby the Chi­nese main­land and Tai­wan have a con­sen­sus on one China, but each side holds its own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what it means. Her stance is wor­ri­some be­cause the con­sen­sus has led to an as­ton­ish­ing re­duc­tion in ten­sions be­tween the Chi­nese main­land and Tai­wan, thereby pro­mot­ing re­gional peace and sta­bil­ity. Tsai seeks to re­as­sure vot­ers by claim­ing she sup­ports the “sta­tus quo” and will han­dle re­la­tions with the main­land in ac­cor­dance with “the will of Tai­wan res­i­dents” and Tai­wan “con­sti­tu­tion”. But these pledges mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

“Pro-in­de­pen­dence” ac­tivists in­ter­pret Tsai’s po­si­tion to mean there will not be re­uni­fi­ca­tion. Oth­ers, how­ever, con­tend that she will con­tinue the trend of greater crossS­traits in­te­gra­tion. Tsai’s lob­by­ists have even claimed her pol­icy is al­most iden­ti­cal to that of the Kuom­intang. This am­bi­gu­ity con­fuses ev­ery­one.

Tsai’s pol­icy to­ward the main­land is im­por­tant to Amer­i­cans be­cause the US is Tai­wan’s pri­mary se­cu­rity part­ner and the only coun­try that “might” pro­vide it with mil­i­tary sup­port in a cri­sis. Whether or not Tsai adopts a vague po­si­tion to­ward other is­sues would be her con­cern. But her ap­proach to the main­land should con­cern all Amer­i­cans— es­pe­cially the US pres­i­dent.

No one knows which DPP will emerge af­ter the elec­tion— the ir­re­spon­si­ble party that seeks to pro­voke the main­land or the new “sub­dued” party that looks a lot like the KMT. And this is pre­cisely why the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ought to be ner­vous.

Public opin­ion polls con­ducted by the Chicago Coun­cil on Global Af­fairs in 2014 re­veal that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the Amer­i­can public (71 per­cent) op­poses send­ing troops to de­fend Tai­wan.

Un­for­tu­nately, it is un­likely that Tsai will state plainly how she plans to ap­proach re­la­tions with the main­land be­fore the Jan­uary elec­tion. Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts spec­u­late that any an­swer will cost her votes. So, am­bi­gu­ity does have its ad­van­tages.

But the global com­mu­nity will rest eas­ier if Tsai can make one un­am­bigu­ous pledge. Dur­ing an in­ter­view with CNN’s Chris­tiane Aman­pour in­May 2010, Ma Ying­jeou, then Tai­wan leader, promised that, “we will never ask the Amer­i­cans to fight for Tai­wan”.

Given the stakes in­volved, Tsai might be asked to make the same vow. Of course, she could “flip flop” on the is­sue later. But the largely sym­bolic move might help re­as­sureWash­ing­ton and Bei­jing that the DPP re­ally has mor­phed into another KMT as claimed by its lob­by­ists— one might even call it “KMT light.”

The au­thor is distin­guished pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Science and di­rec­tor of the Grad­u­ate Pro­gram in Global Stud­ies at Mis­souri State Univer­sity. He is not af­fil­i­ated to any party or or­ga­ni­za­tion in Tai­wan, and the opin­ions ex­pressed in the ar­ti­cle are his own.

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