When it comes to conflict resolution and crisis management, misperception and miscalculation constitute the most dangerous factors that could lead to tensions and conflict. That is what has been entangling cross-strait relations for the past few decades.
While President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration seems to have stabilized relations with the People’s Republic of China during its three years in government, political uncertainties surrounding the relationship are increased when rapprochement relies heavily on each others possible miscalculations, including each side’s misperception about Taiwanese public opinion, as well as the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) cross-strait policy stance.
Most pundits tend to assume that DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) policy toward China is a key variable in cross-strait relations, even though she has not revealed a concrete policy yet. However, her silence is more of an electoral strategy to avoid being “held hostage” by the cross-strait policy debate.
Still, Beijing runs the risk of misjudging Taiwan elections in at least three ways and it might pose severe challenges to cross-strait relations if Tsai and the DPP win.
First, Beijing is overestimating the role of cross-strait relations in the upcoming elections. Contrary to previous presidential elections where cross-strait issues often played a dominant role, domestic issues such as social equality, class distribution, judicial justice, government efficiency, nuclear safety and agricultural development are expected to outweigh cross-strait relations.
This explains why the Ma administration has been playing up its achievements in cross-strait relations by highlighting foreign praise, as indicated by the latest overseas trips made by the Mainland Affairs Council Minister Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛) and Government Information Office Minister Philip Yang (楊永明). The idea was to translate foreign support for Ma’s cross-strait “scorecard” for a domestic audience and score political points. The irony is, the most recent poll released by Global Views magazine shows that Ma’s approval rating has declined to 32.3 percent.
It proves both Beijing and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) underestimate the political reality that “all politics are local.”
Second, Beijing fails to understand Tsai’s “non-traditional-DPP” decision-making style and her unique personality. With a wealth of experiences in international trade negotiations and cross-strait policymaking, Tsai has always adopted a more cautious, patient and long-term decisionmaking process, contrary to traditional DPP leaders’ sometimes hasty and populist style. The Chinese have been seriously analyzing Tsai’s statements related to cross-strait relations and are anxious to find out the details of Tsai’s policy.
Despite its official and intransigent insistence on DPP’s unilateral acceptance of the so-called “1992 consensus” — the concept used by the Ma government to reach 15 agreements with Beijing — as the political basis for cross-strait negotiation, China has begun to look for an alternative political basis for future dialogue with the DPP. The question is whether or not the Chinese leadership would incorporate such pragmatism if Tsai wins.
The final source of misperception from Beijing lies primarily in the belief that, through launching a large-scale and grassroots purchasing program in central and southern Taiwan, as well as sending more Chinese tourists to Taiwan, China can easily loosen the DPP’s stronghold in the south. As numerous provincial governors and business delegations come to Taiwan and place their orders for agricultural products and visit tourist sites, it has resulted in a counter effect.
For example, the Chinese have failed to live up to their promise to buy agricultural products and most economic leverage goes to specific tourist agencies. Farmers, restaurants and local vendors are failing to earn more money.
Facing the major misperception, Tsai and the DPP should be prepared for a potential irrational and antagonistic reaction from Beijing if it regains power in January. Tsai is expected to unveil her cross-strait policy in detail later next month when the DPP holds its national party congress.
Though it is natural for the DPP to “play safe” with its cross-strait policy, there is a need for Tsai to come up with a feasible vision on cross-strait relations which she can articulate to the voters and the international community.
Meanwhile, Beijing should also refrain from rigid and inflexible thinking with regards to the DPP. The Chinese leaders should face the fact that power changes in Taiwan are part of democratic process and it is imperative to adopt pragmatic and friendly thinking to deal with the possible return of a DPP administration.
Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.
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